Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Thoughts on the suicide of Robin Williams

“There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” Albert Camus's philosophy of the absurd gives us as a metaphor for our lives, Sisyphus endlessly pushing his rock up the mountain only to see it roll back down as soon as he gains the top.

Camus's answer to the question of suicide is to be creative, to choose our own values and meaning in life, to live despite the absurdity, to rebel. In earlier works he also valued sensual pleasure:

... when I throw myself down among the absinthe plants to bring their scent into my body, I shall know, appearances to the contrary, that I am fulfilling a truth which is the sun's and which will also be my death's. In a sense, it is indeed my life that I am staking here, a life that tastes of warm stone, that is full of the signs of the sea and the rising song of the crickets. The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/)

When life offers pleasure, whether sensual, intellectual, or meditative, how can we not agree that it is worth living? I have spent my life taking delight in simple pleasures, myself. A good meal, a walk in the woods, a mountain vista, a swim in the sea; a good novel, poem, or film; standing before the paintings of Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Georgia O'Keeffe; or hearing a piano sonata by Beethoven or music of a thousand other musicians...Then, too, I have had the good fortune of love and travel, of nothing short of euphoria and ecstasy in my life.

You will never hear from me a disparaging word about Earthly Delights.
The joys of life, however, are too often fleeting. As John Keats said,

Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;

There's the rub. As we grow older, the joys, though sweeter, are ever rarer. It is then that we grow more aware of suffering, not just our own private suffering, but that throughout the world. We are saddened by the wars, the natural disasters, the deaths of our friends and family, the cruelty, poverty, misery everywhere. We see how much of the misery is our own doing, the product of capitalism, greed, indifference, the inability of so many to have empathy, much less to love. Not only does the stone of Sisyphus roll back to the bottom of the mountain, it causes mass destruction in its wake, crushing homes and the people who dwell therein, killing animals, fouling the entire planet. We come to agree that "man is a useless passion," that "best is never to be born and second best to die as quickly as possible."

Robin Williams was a great actor; he conjured fine emotion and thoughtfulness from those who saw his best films. We mourn the loss of his life; few of us knowing the depths of whatever pain or thoughts may have given him anguish or despair. I dare say in the scheme of things his death should disturb us no more than the deaths of children in Gaza, or the innocent civilians in Iraq. Perhaps it moves us more because we have let his characters into our hearts and minds. His choice of death at age 63 makes us ask ourselves why we don't commit suicide, especially those of us older than he was.

The worst thing in life is false hope, and oh, there is so much of that. Religion is the primary source of it, presenting us with the most absurd images of all, streets paved with gold in some ethereal heaven, virgins waiting to have sex with warriors, health and happiness for the poor, starving, and suffering. Wishful thinking keeps the workers turning the wheels of luxury and sensual pleasure for the rich. How many centuries have the majority of people enslaved themselves to a commanding few? As Bertrand Russell put it:

"Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first one is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.”

My position on suicide, if you haven't figured it out, is that it is often a wise choice; but in any event, never ours to decry when another person chooses it freely. If ever there were Rights of Mankind, the right to end one's own life is fundamental. As an Epicurean who sees the value of simple pleasures, of art, of philosophy, of friendship and awareness in general, I have to bow before the choice of another to forego what joys there might be for the solace of sheer nothingness. The thought of death is comforting as I grow older: whatever pain, loss, and alienation I suffer in the years ahead will end, finally and completely. If I am able, I shall choose not to suffer the surgery and years of intense pain my mother endured in her 80s or the senility and confusion my father suffers yet in his 90s. So I conclude by saying, absurdly, Thank God for suicide*, a blessing to suffering souls everywhere; short of that, Thank God for death.


* One caveat I have to mention is that depression and despair are not always rational or the result of one's circumstances. There is mental illness and imbalance. When this is so, or in cases of addiction, when depression is a symptom, a possible cure is surely warranted. I know this complicates cases of suicide and, in particular, this one. My overview of suicide stands, nonetheless. I think a person can come to suicide rationally, as a matter of choice, and that not everything can be made good by anti-depressants, pain killers, and tranquilizers.

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