Henry David Thoreau once wrote about the mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation. The sad death of actor Robin Williams on Monday reminded me of that quotation, how so few words capture so well what goes on unnoticed by all of us concerning our family, friends, co-workers, and other associates. Little do we know of their daily struggles, whether it be financial difficulty, business failure, health issues, addiction and substance abuse, and so much more.
Based on my own inquiries, most people don’t know that three times more people commit suicide than murder. That is a staggering number. This is something that became personal to me when my father abruptly ended his life in 1966; in his own mind he could not outrun the demons that chased him from the Third Reich. Suicide of a close relative or friend never leaves you. Many believe that it is an extreme act of selfishness, that the person cared more about himself than his family, friends, and others affected by his death. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I have known personally way too many people who have committed suicide. And I’ve learned a lot about the subject over a lifetime. One thing I am absolutely convinced of is this: The person choosing to end it all, most of the time, is in extreme, incomprehensible pain---mental or physical. They have a laser beam focus on escape, and that focus is so narrow that they don’t see anything whatsoever on either side of the beam. The target at the end of that beam is relief.
I am reminded of the 1964 Bobby Goldsboro song, “See That Funny Little Clown.” Everyone thinks he’s happy because on the outside he’s laughing, not knowing that on the inside he’s dying. I’m sure many people who knew Robin Williams would not have known that he was in mental extremis, that whatever tormented him was about to do him in. How many people do we know who could be a Robin Williams?
One observation frequently made by those left behind is that the person seemed calm, like nothing was wrong, that up to the end everything was normal. Little do they know that many of these victims have already made their decision, that it’s a done deal. The only things remaining might be the date, place, and method. It is the finality of that decision that provides the person a sense of peace.
The single greatest presumption we make in this world is that life is worth living. No one has crossed the great divide and come back to say that that presumption is wrong---or not. We take it on faith that we are fortunate to have been born and lived. What each of us can do is to try and make everyone’s life just a little more meaningful. A smile to a stranger having a tough day can work wonders. Generosity where it can really help could save someone’s day. A kind word at the right time can be uplifting. As Maya Angelou said so eloquently, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Perhaps being our neighbor’s keeper, committing random acts of kindness in small ways, could save lives that we will never know about, lives that can’t be statistically measured.