Editor’s Note: It is hard to believe it has been three years since we lost Robin Williams. Refuat Hanefesh finds it important to keep the conversation alive regarding the circumstances and message surrounding the comedy icon’s death. In this spirit, please find below an edited version of a piece which was originally published at the time of Williams’ passing.
Like many others, I was terribly upset to learn of the untimely passing of Robin Williams, who took his life after apparently battling psychiatric illness, depression and addiction for many years. The celebrity who made so many others so happy was, in fact, so incredibly sad.
Discovering the depth of Robin’s depression and the devastating impact it ultimately had on his life has provoked an interest from the public in learning more about mental illness and its treatment.
How Robin’s Death Should Be Viewed
Some have espoused the mistaken and cruel notion that a clinically depressed person’s suicide could have been avoided. Those who die by suicide, such as Robin, should have tried harder, cared more, or recognized how much his departing would hurt the surviving family.
The reality is clinical depression is not a mood that one can simply snap out of. It is a chemical condition that requires treatment, support, empathy, and patience, just as any other ailment or illness does.
Jewish law supports this in acknowledging that the mentally unhealthy person has their freewill somewhat suppressed. To illustrate, the mandate that one who decides to take their life is forbidden from being buried in a Jewish cemetery does not apply to suicide. The reasoning is that suicide is considered to be the result of mental pain, anguish and disturbance. It is not an objective choice made in good health.
Did We Know Robin?
We operate in a culture that invites and promotes being invested in the lives and personalities of celebrities and other public figures. We think we know them and even identify with some of them. The truth is that we do not know them as much as the idea of them. This idea is the roles they play and the limited part of their lives they allow the public into.
I thought I knew Robin because when I was a teenager, he made me laugh. Because as a young adult, some of the characters he played touched me. I appreciated his self-bestowed honorary Jewish status, respected his kind personality and saw him as a mensch (someone who behaves properly).
But I now know that we never knew Robin. Sure, we admired his talents and treasured his artistic contributions. But we didn’t know him.
The Lesson We Must Live
It is time to halt the practice of becoming invested in celebrities and other public figures. We must devote our time to the people with whom we build actual and personal relationships. These people are our coworkers, neighbors, dear friends, and loved ones.
So many we think we know so well wear the mask of happiness. This mask makes us think we know them; though, we don’t. They seem put-together on the outside, while they are battling struggles such as loneliness, addiction or depression on the inside.
Pirkei Avos (2:4) quotes Hillel who said: “Do not judge another until you have stood in his place.” Since it is impossible to stand in another person’s place, to be them, or to live their struggles, we can never really judge another. Instead, we should be kind, sensitive, supportive and understanding of everyone around us.
Taking this approach will help our communities create a stigma-free environment where those struggling, like Robin was, can reach out for help and support without fear of the societal consequences.
Do you believe that this is the right way to reflect upon Robin’s passing? Please share your thoughts and questions below.