Our law reserves the label for our most serious violent crime against a human, First Degree Murder, only for an act of collected, rational, volition and calculation. While a decision to murder, made in the heat of passion, or under the influence of alcohol, is still a heinous act that the perpetrator is responsible for, the law however acknowledges that there is something different about the human will when impaired or limited by other factors. The human will is susceptible to irrational and spontaneous behavior because of other influences that are beyond, and often against, reason.
A more extreme example are psychotic mental disorders that legally fall under the category of ‘insanity,’ whereby one is not fully in control of, or able to comprehend the gravity, of their actions. There is grey area here too. Even in these cases there is, technically, some volitional dimension. Some sort of choice is made. Indeed, there are a series of choices and non-choices at play – what if the perpetrator had gotten help years ago? But then again, what if they didn’t know they needed help? What if they hadn’t been abused as a child and perhaps the psychotic disorder wouldn’t have developed, or at least not become as serious? Despite this web of questions, the law has a place for saying that a particular crime is not punishable if under the immediate influence of serious, powerful, out-of-control factors.
That is one reason why I cringe when I read something like Matt Walsh’s blog contending we should recognize Robin Williams’ taking his own life, a ‘choice.’ Technically, he’s right. A decision was made that, in a sense, could have been otherwise. And anyone with Williams at the time would hopefully have said as much to him, and encouraged him to make a different choice. But we are also forced to recognize the tragic truth that he was influenced by other factors as well. Namely, depression. And this is a complicated admission to make.
Depression is, certainly, more than a chemical imbalance. Depression includes spiritual and indeed, volitional dimensions. And not even brain chemistry is static, because chemistry can sometimes be positively altered by therapy and learning new patterns of behavior, not to mention medication. There is some research to suggest that brain chemistry can be negatively altered by environmental and even volitional factors such that someone eventually develops clinical depression. On the other hand, sometimes, all the therapy and hard-work in the world isn’t enough either because of a genetic predisposition, or an imbalance too serious to ever fully, or not even significantly, correct.
Many factors influence our mental state.
And we are far from fully understanding how it all works.
But however exactly we get there, usually a combination of complicated factors are at play, and as a whole this often brings depressed people to a point of impaired judgement. In hindsight, do some of us have the opportunity to transcend some of these factors? Perhaps. Sometimes. To varying degrees. Maybe we could have chosen to get help sooner. Maybe we could have exercised better. Maybe we could have prayed more. And maybe none of those things would have changed a thing. Depression is much, much more than a series of choices, and much much more than something that can simply be transcended by pure will. It impacts our decisions. It can be self-perpetuating. And even one who makes all the right choices to find some improvement (and still, it often takes time, and the right people and influences in our lives, also things outside of our control, to start that path), it can still be very difficult to keep in control. This is not to mention the fact that its cause, its impact on our life, varies from one case to another.
The actions we take under the influence of depression are far from a mere question of ‘choice.’
Similarly, admitting that there is a spiritual dimension to suicide is far from admitting that suicide is a ‘choice.’ As believers in a sinful, and fallen, world, Christians are the first to admit that our souls are broken and unable to be fixed by ourselves. Our spirits are not ‘pure will,’ as some modernist philosophies have asserted.
Suicide is far from something able to be easily whittled down to a question of ‘disease’ vs. ‘choice.’ It’s in a very murky area of in-between, as are many of our decisions, including decisions society deems as not entirely controllable.
So, all that to say, to emphasize that suicide is a choice is, kind of unhelpful. I’m not sure what the point is to say so. Perhaps there is something helpful in emphasizing that there is always hope, always the possibility of choosing life. ‘Amen’ to that. and I hope anyone who is, or does, contemplate suicide hears that message loud and clear – one that Walsh was right to end his article with: “There is always hope.”
Depression can still be rightly seen as an affliction, and someone who commits suicide is often not fully free to think rationally or clearly.
It is dangerous to tell someone contemplating suicide that they merely need to have enough willpower. They need to find healing, they need to have accountability to protect them from themselves, they need support to help them navigate all the turmoil and all the factors working against them making the right choice. And, sadly, sometimes people lose that battle.
The ability to accept that in-betweenness of it all is difficult. And it is tragic.
I am no determinist (indeed, I think Walsh is fighting a ghost – few people are full-blown materialist-determinists anymore). I believe we make choices and are responsible for them. But neither do I accept the equally un-Christian (and equally modernistic, humanistic) lie that we are merely blank slates of pure rational will, un-influenced by other non-rational factors. We are influenced by our passions, our experiences, our genetics, etc. We do not make our decisions in a vacuum.Our passions, cognitive abilities, and our very wills are subject to non-rational dimensions of life. Most importantly, to sin. Indeed, my Christian faith forces me to live in the paradox between seeing human beings as actors and victims.
This is why we believe in a Christ who is not merely the payment for our sins, but who is also our liberator. We are more than just a collection of choices made in complete freedom, we are slaves to human limitation and fallen ness. And those limitations continue with us to varying degrees until glory (which is why one can suffer depression, for example, as a Christian), and they play out in various forms: social, biological, psychological, spiritual, etc. We are not all healed, fully liberated, until the end. We are still, tragically, subject to a sinful condition and sinful world outside of our control – no matter how much pure willpower we are able to have. And God does not always heal us from these things, until the end.
We are somewhere between victims and culpable perpetrators. Scripture uses both images to describe the human condition. Walsh accuses society of not wanting to face and accept the reality of the ‘volition’ of suicide. I think we are even more scared to face the weird paradox that we live in a difficult in-between where we feel guilty and culpable and desirous of identifying blame for people’s actions, but also that we are caught in a huge, inescapable, tragic world of sin and brokenness where blame is ultimately hard to land any one place too heavily. And this is the space in which forgiveness inhabits, because it forces us to admit that the brokenness does not ultimately fall any one place – even though God chooses to become that one place. He carries our choices and our sufferings, all on his shoulders. He feels the pain and is mourning with us, lamenting with us, shouting NO into the void and into the darkness with us, not as a distant Judge, but as a fellow mourner.
When someone takes their own life, it is difficult not to play the blame game. Friends and family are tempted to blame themselves. Some want to blame society as a whole for not having better ways of intervening. And some want to blame the person who died. I’m not sure any of those places are appropriate to lay the blame. It’s a multifaceted tragedy that is part of our complicated, fallen, world. There will always be ‘what-ifs.’ And always moments to say ‘let’s do better at reaching out,’ and ‘let’s train better therapists,’ and ‘let’s make better medication.’ But what-ifs must eventually come to an end and we must simply lament the brokenness that is ultimately beyond any of us; the brokenness that demands a Savior that is beyond any of us. A brokenness that, sadly, is here to stay until He decides to finish it all up. A brokenness that is angering, debilitating, and worth lamenting.
To put so much emphasis on ‘choice’ is to assume a world that can be fixed up by human power. It is to assume a world that does not need grace.
Law and society can’t always account for this complicated reality. Choices have to be made, lines have to be drawn. Murderers are not off the hook because ‘after all we’re all sinners.’ Humans are responsible for their actions, even many decisions made under what society identifies as irrational influences (some serious mental illnesses do not make for legitimate legal excuses). But this doesn’t change the fact that we are more than just choices. We are also victims of a fallen world – and some of us in more limiting and debilitating ways than others. It’s a heart wrenching, perplexing, state of affairs. It calls us to be sorrowful, and it calls us to be broken, and humbled, underneath a world we cannot fix.
I wish this whole thing didn’t have to be written – not because I find Walsh’s thoughts entirely wrong (I think he raises some valid questions) – but because someone has died. I wish a death, a tragic death, did not so easily become an opportunity for social and political controversy. A man, who is known and loved by many, is gone. That’s sad. It’s tragic, as is any loss of life. Our Christian faith calls us firstly to lament, and hold on to faith in the midst of tragedy.
Many of us Christians have bemoaned what we call a ‘culture of death.’ Let’s not fall prey to the temptation to perpetuate such a culture by using a tragic death as an opportunity to jump at the chance to make social commentary. By jumping into the fray now, I guess I am just as guilty of this as anyone else so far. But I hope that whatever I have said is honoring to the tragic reality that is this loss, and any loss of this sort of tragedy. Lovers of life must first and foremost lament.
I am so thankful for the joy and beauty that Robin brought with his work. I will likely return, time and time again for the rest of my life, to especially poignant moments in Good Will Hunting. I will often remember my laughter as a 5-year-old, watching Aladdin. I will often try to heed the advice that words are for one purpose: “to woo women.” And I am so sad to know that he struggled so much. I do not know the state of his heart or anything about his faith. That is not my place, really. But as I do for all who die, I am bold to ask for God’s mercy on his soul, for our God is a God who has pity on the brokenness we live in, and He sees the big picture and knows all that we suffer, and has grace. And He is desirous of healing all our afflictions.