Robin Williams, Depression, and Atheism
While Robin Williams has played many great roles throughout his acting career, I will always remember him most as John Keating, the wise, rebellious educator in The Dead Poets Society. Coincidently enough, that film was all about depression and suicide; two themes now closely associated with Robin Williams.
These themes hit pretty hard for me because there are a lot of people in my life who suffer from depression and over the last few years, I have lost two of them to suicide. Both of my two friends who committed suicide were atheists and it has been my experience that a lot of atheists struggle with depression.
I think perhaps in some ways depression can force some people to self-analyzes and think critically about the world – maybe sometimes too critically. But one positive result from this could be that people with depression might be more likely to realize that religion is bullshit because of those traits. That’s just my opinion, based purely on anecdotal accounts. The fact is that depression doesn’t discriminate. Theists and atheists alike suffer from this terrible disease, which clouds our experiences in a haze of negativity.
The thing is that when religious believers suffer from severe depression, they have religious leaders to go to for comfort seemingly free of charge. But for atheists, we have to go through a medical system full of red tape, insurance companies, and co-pays. Sure, in the long run, real medicine is ultimately better than self-medicating with the Jesus drug, but in the short term, religion does offer something that the greater community of reason has not yet been able to provide – a person to talk to and provide advice and comfort.
I think we can do better. I think our community should be able to provide people with an ear and some sage advice too. There are certainly secular outlets for this, like the suicide prevention hotline, but we as a community should be there for each other too.
Over the years, I have received several e-mails from suicidal atheists seeking advice and I always take those e-mails very seriously. The way I see it, this life is the only one we have, so we really need to make the most of it. We all go through tough times and those who suffer from depression have a much harder time navigating through those tough times. But life is worth living even when it is hard. Sometimes the best things in life come after getting past those hard times.
Contrary to the claims of some fundamentalist religious believers, there are lots of things for atheists to live for. The universe is wondrous and we are all part of that. Just imagine how exciting it would be to be out there among the stars exploring the vast unknown. Imagine exploring the unknown possibilities of existence. Right now, we can only dream of that and help move that ball forward so that other people might have those opportunities someday.
We are a part of a great tapestry. We are part of the world — part of the human species. We should be very much aware that this life is the only life and we should live it fully. I think we also all want to do our best to make this world a better place for those who come after us. We all want humanity to achieve great things and personally, I want to play my part in that tapestry of achievement. This, in my opinion, is worth living for.
Life is like a movie. We know that at some point it will be over, but for the time being we are content to enjoy the show. Robin Williams was a great actor – not just in the movies, but in the show of life. While I am sad that he left the theater before the movie was over, I know that he cared about this world and gave to it everything he had. A vocal environmentalist and philanthropist, Williams used his success to help others and to help society. More than that, he gave us laughter, hope, and sage advice:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
-John Keating, The Dead Poets Society – brilliantly portrayed by Robin Williams.
To all those who suffer from depression and who might be thinking that suicide is the answer – it is, but know that your depression is distorting your view and that you have asked the wrong question. As Keating put it, “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” Stay, we need you, we love you, and we want you to stay. If you are suffering from depression, please get help. There is no shame in that. We are all part of the tapestry of the human species and we all help each other out from time to time. Know that many great people throughout history suffered as you suffer. You don’t have to suffer alone. Visit the Suicide Prevention Hotline.