Popular Christian morality has a strained relationship with mental illness, and this has scarcely been more apparent than right now. With Robin Williams’ tragic suicide yesterday, everyone seems to have an opinion to share — not a bad thing, as I had my own, but some of the opinions have been rather offensive. As a general rule, the worst time to preach about the morality of suicide is immediately after the fact. Even if you say something true, which seems to be pretty hard for a lot of people, the more moral proclamations you make, the more likely it is that your comments on the situation are ill-timed at best, horrible at worst.
And so it is with Matt Walsh’s insultingly-titled article, Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice. The article itself is not as bad as the title, but it is still bad. Even if the article were good, the title is an offense of its own. Matt Walsh should apologize for the post (and honestly all his other posts, too) for speaking well beyond his expertise. To put Walsh’s advice in a nutshell, he basically states that people battling depression are faced with a difficult choice, and they ultimately need to be sufficiently spiritually-aligned to keep from making that fateful decision to end one’s life.
It’s not for me to comment on the exact nature of depression, and the same is true for Walsh. Read a trained therapist or maybe just study psychology if you want to know more. We have experts for a reason, and you should realize the limits of your knowledge and defer to people who know more than you.
Here’s the thing, though. We don’t expect people with Downs syndrome to perform rocket science. We don’t expect people with cerebral palsy to compete at the Olympic level. We never fault them for this, and we do our best to love them and support them in their limitations.
Why, then, do we treat people with depression and similar illnesses as though they should be able to perform at a level well above the limitations of their disease? Why do some people — like Matt Walsh — try to fault people for not making all the right choices, even when those people have problems which preclude making all the right choices?
Christian folk morality really needs for Williams’ suicide to be a choice. If it’s not a choice, how can we say that suicide is bad? How can we assign it moral value? And whose fault is the suicide if not the person who killed himself? This last question is critical, I believe.
It is trivially true that Robin Williams and no one else ultimately placed the noose around his own neck, but this is not enough to start assigning blame. This is precisely the mistake that Walsh and others make. They ask the question, “Whose fault is the suicide?” and then take the immediately-obvious answer without a deeper consideration of what could be the case. The action is too complex and premeditated, so folk morality has a very hard time placing blame elsewhere or perhaps placing no blame at all; the simplest explanation then prevails in spite of the facts which complicate the matter.
Folk morality has a long list of similar simplifications. Poor people should just make better decisions — even though the education necessary to make better decisions is expensive and out of reach. Black people should stop committing so many crimes and tearing apart their community — even though the criminal justice system unfairly targets the problems facing minority communities, even though the felonies received for minor crimes all but preclude finding a decent job. Women in a crisis pregnancy only do harm receiving an abortion — even though single mothers face horrible poverty and food security statistics.
Curiously, I began crafting the previous paragraph before I realized that in every case, Matt Walsh had already said the sorts of things I criticize here: over-simplifications of complex problems. So, I just made some minor edits and linked his articles. He writes as though his solutions are obvious to everyone, so people should just bow to his wisdom. Here’s a hint: the world is a complex place. Our first intuitions are frequently wrong. We have to do the hard work of researching a topic thoroughly before speaking about it — a concept which Walsh frankly fails to grasp.
One of the things that we will have to give up if we do this, though, is our naive outlook on free will which we inherit from folk morality and which informs Walsh’s latest gaffe. If only people would just choose to do the right things, right? If our choices were not colored by chemicals, by past experiences, by knowledge and experience, by disease, by bacteria in your stomach, and by a whole bunch of other factors, then sure. But the reality is that free will is such a complex subject that honestly not even the brightest philosophers, psychologists, or neuroscientists comprehend it. I certainly don’t, and I’ve studied it a good deal — far more, I assume, than Walsh, whose credentials and background seem totally elusive.
We really must divest ourselves of the tendency toward easy answers. Walsh is easy to pick on because he is so frequently wrong, but he is certainly not the only person who does this. Mental illness is a complex topic, and the answer to suicide isn’t just “don’t do it! Be more spiritual!” No matter how loudly we scream, that approach simply fails to address the situation. If we are serious about combating suicide, let’s address the systemic problems with our society that engender feelings of loneliness and abandonment, let’s end the stigma against getting help, and let’s learn a bit more about mental illnesses. Again, go read a psychology textbook or at least a good number of Wikipedia pages before presuming to make a judgment.
In tragic cases like Robin Williams’ death, it is easy to fall for simple explanations to make sense of the world, but we have to be better than that. We need to acknowledge the complexity of reality and recognize the limitations of our knowledge. If we fail, we make asses of ourselves, but I think we can succeed, and if we succeed, we make the world a better place. Let’s strive to be compassionate, informed citizens proudly working together to support the downtrodden and depressed. Let’s hope for a world where the next Robin Williams doesn’t have to die.