A Butterfly Effect of the Life and Death of Robin Williams: Compassion as a New Christian Response to Suicide

August 22, 2014 6:52 PM

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A Butterfly Effect of the Life and Death of Robin Williams: Compassion as a New Christian Response to Suicide

As the public conversation intensifies among the many people who are confused and grieving both the suicide of Robin Williams and the unfeeling responses of some of his critics, we seem to be paying much-needed attention to life with chronic mental illness and long-term struggles to remain in recovery from addiction. The tragic death gives birth to compassionate understanding among those willing to learn about the causes of suicide and perhaps prevent it for some other struggling individual in the future. His death was not in vain. The impact of his loss on so many people reminds me of what scientists sometimes call "the butterfly effect" or "sensitive dependence on initial conditions," (e.g., a butterfly flapping its wings in South America eventually affecting the weather in Central Park). Perhaps this one man's struggle and his critics' reactions have captured international attention because so many of us can relate to his battle. After all, he did not (as some critics claim) suddenly have a "cowardly" moment out of the blue, making a sudden "choice" unconnected with the rest of his life. For many decades he had courageously shared his struggle with addiction and his attempt to live sober, in recovery, one day at a time (including relapse and trying again). Like so very many of us, for years he managed to survive suicidal depression and addiction, one day at a time. So the butterfly effect here is that this later-life suicide of one struggling person set in motion a public response including character attacks that, in turn, by extension, feel like an attack on all of us who struggle to stay sober and alive each day, and a failure to recognize the importance and monumental difficulty of the daily victories achieved over years of surviving this struggle.

In addition, we can learn compassion for the way that other neurological illnesses may impact depression and its outcomes, as Williams is now reported to have begun to experience the effects of Parkinson's. My own friends with Parkinson's tell me it can sometimes manifest as chronic depression -- no...

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