The Desperation of Suicide
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The Desperation of Suicide Fueled by Depression and Lack of Self Worth
In the midst of writing a blog about Shri Krishna’s and Balarama's appearance days, I was interrupted by the sad news of Robin Williams’ (the famous actor and comedian) suicide on Monday and was unable to continue. Since this unfortunate event has been on my mind for the last few days, I felt compelled to write about this topic for many reasons. As some of you know, my father committed suicide, but additionally, my wife’s older brother did also, and so our family has been greatly affected by suicide. Thus, Mr. Williams’ death hit a nerve with me, as did some of the rather harsh, uncompassionate, and frankly, ignorant comments I have read online.
Certainly Robin Williams wasn’t a saint. He had many imperfections and unresolved life issues, and his suicide seemed a terrible response, and yet, in spite of this, I found something very sincere, human, and compelling about him. Perhaps due to my past, I could sense some kind of pain beneath the surface of his humor. Admittedly, upon hearing about his cause of death I found it sadly ironic that a person celebrated for his humor would find no humor or value within himself. Later I learned that this isn’t as rare as I imagined for brilliant comedians. Someone even suggested that some clowns paint their faces to hide their melancholy. Whether true or not, I can say with certainty that people are not always what they seem, and are often full of duality!
Severe depression has become another modern epidemic and is one of the leading factors of suicide, though anger, social isolation, alcohol and drug abuse, need for control, impulsiveness, and certain medications, or chronic medical illness can also be factors. I find that people are complex and sometimes difficult to understand without knowing their often secret history. Since even great souls can have conflicting sides of their personality, what to speak of “ordinary,” even famous, persons in the world. While we do have to make assessments of a person’s behavior and qualities to highlight those to follow or avoid, when I see a person’s shortcomings or faults I am also aware of them within myself, at least potentially. This often gives me pause in my evaluation, as in the Bible saying, “Let him with no sin cast the first stone.” [John 8:7]
Depression and suicide aren’t just secular problems but exist in all religions and social groups. While devotees of Krishna (Gaudiya Vaishnavas) can give reasons why life can be depressing without Krishna, I unfortunately know a number of devotees who died by suicide. Therefore, this is an important topic for devotees, as well as the larger population. Religious people tend to think that if only a misbehaved or sinful person was a member of their religion that such a person wouldn’t have acted as they did—in this case, committing suicide—but often mental health issues go undiagnosed, or are not effectively treated. Additionally, one’s character is only reformed very gradually by spiritual practice, prayer, and ultimately grace. Besides the fact we all have experienced that old habits die with difficulty, with the scent still lingering even years after a habit is changed for the better.
According to Shrimad Bhagavatam [1.1.10], “…[I]n this iron age of Kali men almost always have but short lives. They are quarrelsome, lazy, misguided, unlucky and, above all, always disturbed.” Therefore, we have to expect the masses to be disturbed, and that devotees of Krishna who come for relief from suffering or other problems, will only gradually recover from their past negative conditioning.
Those of us who have suffered or are suffering from depression will be more understanding and generous to someone who, upon closer examination, was so troubled. Personally, having suffered from depression before I took up bhakti and at times afterward, I can relate to some extent the pain, hopelessness, and darkness that might compel someone to take the drastic and lonely act of killing themselves—or at least their visible existence in the world, since there is no death for the soul. When we study the human condition and understand something about psychology, we tend to be more compassionate to the plight of others with mental health issues. While we don’t want to encourage anyone to take such a drastic action, but rather to seek help from family, friends, trained clergy, and mental health professionals, we can also feel sad that such a talented and giving person as Robin Williams became so hopeless as to check out of this world, and by the very painful means of hanging.
Even though we want people to know that suicide isn’t really the solution to one’s problems and has karmic repercussions, we also want to address the suffering of others with compassion and kindness even if, or perhaps especially if, they attempt, or are successful in taking their own life. How incredibly sad, and how can we help others who may become so full of despair? If we can't express sadness and feeling when we observe suffering we show ourselves to be hard-hearted or indifferent to the depression and intense misery of others, so symptomatic of the times we live in. Though we may not be able to do anything personally we at least we can pray for them.
There is a story related in the Prabhupada Memories series by his disciples of a devotee looking out the window in the Calcutta temple at some deformed cripples. He looked up to see his guru Prabhupada and said to him, "Prabhupada, sometimes I feel compassion for such suffering people." To which Prabhupada replied, "Why only sometimes?" One rendering of the Gita 6.32 is that the yogi or devotee, sees the suffering of others as their own. This version was quoted by former US Pres. Clinton at an AIDS conference some years ago. To me, when unfortunate occurrences or catastrophic calamities occur, the true measure of our heart and spiritual advancement is tested. If we could put ourselves in the position of the aggrieved, what response would we hope for and need? Would it be a lecture, or loving kindness and support? We give according to who we are and how well we have dealt with the many sad complexities of life. Spiritual compassion for the soul should include compassion for the suffering of others in their body and mind.
Shri Chaitanya dances with the body of Haridas Thakur after this death