Tragedy as defined by the dictionary is pretty straightforward: anything sad. Tragedy as defined by the real world: anything sad in which one force takes action against a being or set of beings. Columbine shootings: tragedy. 9/11: tragedy. Hurricane Katrina: tragedy. Suicide: not a tragedy.
Suicide is a choice. Whether it’s a quick, assured death by hanging or a slow gamble by chain smoking cigarettes, people who kill themselves make a conscious decision to do so. The choice is not the tragedy. Rather the events, circumstances, and emotional states that lead to the choice are possibly tragic in themselves.
For an incredibly talented icon like Robin Williams, of course this feels tragic. Unfortunately, that perceived tragedy stems from a misguided and selfish perspective on our parts. It is a “look what he did to us,” sort of tragedy that we feel. “How dare he deprive us of his talents?” we ask, feeling perfectly justified in listing his accomplishments and remarking that there will be no more.
And of course we will discuss him in death, just as we celebrated him in life. (To ask that we do differently is an entirely different essay and best saved for a different day.) The trouble comes when that fine line is crossed and a celebration of his life becomes a celebration of his death instead. It is easy to forget that underneath the sensation, and alongside the comedic genius, and behind the household face, there was a regular man who suffered regular depression and made the irregular choice to end that depression in a way that would prevent him from feeling it again. Likewise, he will never again feel joy.
While I have never attempted suicide, nor have I known anyone who has completed a suicide, I stand alongside countless others in understanding how quickly those thoughts come when depression strikes. Ask any person who has ever felt the stirring of hopeless thoughts or the deceptive false hope of possibly ending life: living becomes a choice. “Choosing life” isn’t just a right-wing slogan. It is a decision that must be made every time dying seems like an option. For someone to choose differently, for someone to choose suicide, it is the most unfortunate decision, most simply since it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about it. In fact, we should keep talking about it until no one feels like ending life is the only option. With that, however, please be mindful of celebrating a death when what should be celebrated is life. There’s only so much any of us can do about the approach big media chooses to take, but each person who adds to the discussion will have some effect on another. Don’t help make suicide cool, just help make it stop.