Robin Williams and Brittany Maynard

2014 was full of big news items (Isis, Ebola, Ferguson, etc.) that received a lot of coverage for obvious reasons, but the suicides of Robin Williams and Brittany Maynard stand out in my mind as reflective of issues that perhaps aren’t examined as much as they should be.

Robin Williams with a sad expression on his face

Like many, I liked Robin Williams. I grew up with Mork and Mindy and thought he was a good actor and comedian. And I knew someone who had met and spent some time with Robin (through Robin’s lifelong friend Jonathan Winters who frequented the Coffee Grinder, a coffee shop that existed for years in Carpinteria, California where I live.) And this person observed that it was impossible to truly connect with Robin in an authentic way, not due to any conceit or snobbery on Robin’s part, but because Robin seemed to have a compulsive need to be always “on” and performing. When he told me this, I remembered an interview with Robin I had read. The interviewer had asked about his earliest memories of performing and Robin explained that his mother was the unhappy wife of an auto company executive and as her only child, he constantly entertained her to try to make her happy (and presumably get her attention and love.) Those two pieces of information always stuck with me over the years. So when I learned of his suicide, which occurred on August 11, 2014, I was very saddened, but it also came as no surprise to me.

After his death, keeping in mind what I knew about Robin, I looked for news items that touched on or explored why this man, in spite of all of his obvious blessings in life, was so deeply despondent. There was no shortage of tributes to his career, accolades over what he achieved, his career highlights, and mentions of his philanthropic work. There was some speculation as to why he committed suicide. Possible reasons cited included: despondency over diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, diffuse Lewy body dementia, recent heart surgery, side-effects of medications, and depression (of medical origin.) Little else was mentioned of his obvious despair and unhappiness, or its possible roots in his life or past experiences, even though there were clues (i.e. the interview that I read.) Just a string of possible medical reasons were given. 

Brittany Maynard in an interview

News of Robin’s suicide was soon followed by the controversy surrounding Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine year old woman diagnosed with a rare, terminal brain cancer who became a spokesperson for assisted suicide and the “right to die” movement. On Nov. 1 2014, Brittany chose to end her own life. Among her reasons: extreme pain, the grim prognosis and most of all, she emphasized the concern she had for her family. She did not want them to see her deterioration and suffering. She presented her argument in a poignant and even logical manner. But I was puzzled and disturbed. I have personally known people who were diagnosed with various ailments ranging from irritating to serious, and despite the unfavorable statistics and doctors’ prognoses, they either healed or things didn’t turn out as badly as predicted—some would say due to God, others would say due to good luck or good genes or a good change in diet. The point I am trying to make—the diagnosis or the prognosis by the expert never panned out. Meaning the experts don’t know everything regardless of how smart or educated they may be. So I was horrified to learn that a twenty-nine year old put her complete faith in the faulty and imperfect wisdom of men and ended her own life. And this was all eloquently framed as a “human rights issue.” (Just so there is no confusion, this piece is not meant to address the plight of barely functioning people kept alive by medical gadgetry. That’s a whole other topic and issue.)

Brittany defended her “personal choice” and “right” and presented her argument in a convincing manner. But so did Maggie Karner, a woman who is diagnosed with the same brain cancer with the same prognosis, and is choosing not to end her own life. Maggie was also deeply troubled by Brittany’s decision and expressed concern that this decision was in many ways just a reflection of our instant gratification culture. Maggie pointed out that increasingly in our culture, there seems to be a tendency to instantly try to medicate away or numb out anything negative. These days, anyone experiencing anything negative (whether a bad mood or a rough patch in life or anything in between) will often immediately try to numb it, with either a pill, entertainment, food, or addiction of some kind. She wisely observed that it is often through our negative experiences in life that we learn and grow into deeper, richer human beings.

Maggie, along with other critics of Brittany’s decision, have suggested that for people in Brittany’s predicament, the emphasis should be on compassionate, dignified hospice care with good pain management. High quality, professional hospice care is readily available in many parts of this country, and where it isn’t, the need for such care should be emphasized rather than an option such as assisted suicide. The modern hospice movement was started in 1967 by Dame Cicely Saunders, an Anglican nurse, who opened St. Christopher’s Hospice in London. Saunders recognized the needs of dying patients and devised principles for alleviating suffering in the process of dying which include pain relief, dignified treatment, and compassionately honoring the psychological and spiritual aspects of death. And latest studies indicate hospice patients live longer than those not receiving hospice care.

But we don’t like anything difficult, messy, complicated, and forget time-consuming. Our consumer-driven mindset wants convenience. More and more we seem to hold the view that all suffering is wrong. The gods of Convenience and Economics increasingly hold sway (with the never-spoken, but ever present sentiment—it’s too expensive and a drain on resources to let a really sick or disabled person live. Never mind the horrible inconvenience to the living who have busy lives.) Forget the messier, complicated aspects of life, the things that make us deep and strong in character. As Maggie pointed out, it is our difficult experiences that make us richer human beings. I have to say that it was through my struggles in life that I grew the most in character and in spirituality. I grew closer to God in my dark times, not necessarily when things were going well, like a bit of deep earth under intense pressure turning into a diamond—that was when my character and faith grew strong. But denial of any type of negative experience is becoming more and more pervasive with a compulsive emphasis on entertainment, amusement, fun, comfort, diversion, and the avoidance of suffering at any cost.

And now suicide is sugarcoated and presented as a “human right” and a “personal decision.” On the surface, “right to die with dignity” sounds so noble, well-meaning, even compassionate, but the troubling flip side to all of this, behind the noble-sounding words, death is being presented as the ideal solution to a problem. Unfortunately, the thought process can go something like this: “Don’t even try to stick it out. Don’t even consider the possibility that the “experts” might not know everything. Don’t even consider a spiritual side to all of this. What’s the point? Life and most of all death, sickness, the process of dying, disease—it’s too ugly, complicated, messy, inconvenient. All the living people around the sick and dying person has to look at the reality of this—how awful, how gross. What a bummer. Why make them go through all that when you can just go to a doctor and get a prescription and end it all? You’re going to die anyways—might as well speed it up. Just get a prescription and end it. Don’t even consider that something good may come out of suffering. That someone might learn something, or grow through it, or develop a deeper relationship that transcends the material.” Or if you want this in an even smaller soundbite, the underlying message is essentially: “When things get too hard, the best thing you can do is end it. If you’re having a really, really tough time and feel it’s unbearable, the best thing you can do is just end your own life. Death is a good, convenient solution to a very difficult or messy problem.”

In Robin’s suicide, his reason was never explicitly stated, but there clearly seems to be that underlying sentiment, “What’s the point? It’s easier to end it.” His string of medical reasons may have contributed to the act—psychiatric drugs in particular are notorious for side-effects that include suicidal thoughts and actions. But what was he trying to blot out or numb out with those drugs (along with the illegal drugs and alcohol he abused in the past)? What pain was he trying to numb out that he ultimately blotted out with his suicide? There was little talk of his depression other than it was a condition that needed to be medicated as if it were an ailment like high blood pressure. There was no talk of a depression that may have had roots in unresolved childhood grief and never mind the obvious fact of his deep human despair and spiritual emptiness. (Yes, a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease is unpleasant, but many don't commit suicide over it.) Medical reasons for depression seem to be always the preferred explanation. Forget the messy business of human emotion, human despair, human needs, the sloppiness of grief. Anything messy, dirty, inconvenient, including any uncomfortable truths from the past, sweep it under the rug. Get rid of it. Run to a doctor, get a prescription. Forget truth. Don’t focus on or bring attention to Robin’s deep human despair (which probably taps into our own feelings of despair.) Don’t question, don’t examine the truth of why he could be so unhappy, or ask why he had such a hole—a deep sadness and a spiritual emptiness that was never filled or relieved with fame, riches, and adulation. That would point to a troubling truth we don’t want to confront ourselves—that much of what we strive for, the beliefs we run on are actually very shaky. Many of the things we are frantically chasing, all of our frantic performance to the point of exhaustion will never give us the love and security that we desperately crave (only God can), but rather than consider that possibility, we take Robin’s human despair, slam it into the convenient little pigeon-hole of a medical diagnosis and quickly forget it with the thought, “He didn’t get the right pill when he needed it.” Brittany spoke in glowing terms of her stockpile of pills—she said having it gave her a great peace of mind knowing that she can end it at any time, in case things get too unpleasant or difficult.

Sadly, this is all presented now as the “enlightened,” even “compassionate” view. It’s common to frame everything in terms of “rights” now—pumping a fist in the air with a chant, “If I want to die, that’s my right! I don’t want anyone making that choice for me!” It’s easy to get swept up in that language and perspective and not even consider that there is another way of looking at it. That this could be a sick reflection of our superficial, selfish, instant gratification culture of convenience that is increasingly indifferent and hostile to anything that poses trouble or difficulty. “If it’s not convenient for me, then I’m not going to deal with it, and that’s my right!” As if nothing could be gained through struggle. As if no one could learn anything through difficulty about the transiency of life and the strength of the spirit. As hospice founder Dame Saunders observed, as the body grows weaker, the spirit grows stronger. There is a strong cultural current that insists more and more on a purely materialistic view and a denial of spiritual reality. Material goals and entertainment take precedence over most other goals and if you can’t numb your difficulties with entertainment, shopping, substance abuse, or work then grab a pharmaceutical from big pharma. As some would insist, we’re just biological machines—there is no spiritual basis to our existence, there is no God, and our best bet is to put our faith in “experts” playing God, in the name of good. Since that isn’t foolproof, now death is presented as an ideal option. As if the love of Christ never even existed. When you comment that we live in a culture with strong antichrist tendencies, people laugh at you, but is that far from the truth?

(On a completely irrelevant side note, three new topics were added to my project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other ThingsManagement consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody and I discuss the background and beginnings of his career in the topics: "Customer Service at Four Winds Nursery" ; "Bad at School But Good at Learning and Teaching" ;  "The Early Days and the First Big Break") 

(Posted 12/31/14)