Last week at this time I was driving on my way to Denver for a vacation. During a stop in Raton, New Mexico I was getting caught up on social media. That’s when I learned about the death of Robin Williams. As I drove into Colorado I cried and began to compose my thoughts into what would become this post. Being on vacation I decided not to make time to write it until I came back home. Now that I’m back and time has passed, I guess there isn’t anything to be said that hasn’t already been said by the internet, but I figured I would say something to my family, friends, and the readers of this blog who may not have heard a Catholic voice on the matter yet.
My first real encounter with suicide was when I was in the seventh grade. The brother of a friend of mine had killed himself. A lot of that time has been lost to me, but the one memory that I knew would be around for a long time was that of me standing in the back of the funeral home, because there were not enough seats to hold the people who had come to remember Xavier, and wondering how he had ever felt so lonely. It seemed like his entire high school had come. There were notes written on a banner which stretched across the entire length of the wall and it was filled with messages from people who loved him. I wondered, with all of these people in the world who cared for him, how did this young man hurt so badly. That memory has been huge in my life. I am the sort of guy who likes to be very vocal about my love. I say “I love you” to a lot of people a lot of the time. Sometimes it freaks people out. Sorry! It’s a habit that began in that funeral home all those years ago.
Suicide is something I get asked a lot about as a youth minister because it is something that young people have to live with. Ask a teen in your life if they know someone who has thought about or committed suicide and I can almost guarantee they will say yes. For this reason, we have to be willing and able to talk about the issue as Christians. A lot of people have weighed in on Robin Williams’ death, suicide, and depression in the days since we lost him. I’ve yet to see someone provide the Catholic teaching regarding the subject, so here it goes.
Let’s be clear. Suicide is a sin. It is a grave sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph #2280 says this:
“Everyone is responsible for his life before G-d who has given it to him. It is G-d who remains the sovereign Master of life. we are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life G-d has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.”
Suicide is a sin for the same reason that murder is a sin. It attempts to take into the hands of the offender the mastery of life itself. Life does not exist because of us and we do not have authority to command it in this way.
Many, including Christians, misinterpret this truth to mean that the Church teaches that all people who commit suicide are instantly and irreversibly condemned to Hell. This is incorrect.
For a sin to be mortal, that is the type of sin which might cause someone to end up in Hell, a number of conditions must be met.
“Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” -Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph #1857
Mortal sin requires responsibility for the evil committed. If I accidentally kill someone with my car, I’m less responsible for that evil if I were sober, paying attention, and someone just ran out in front of my car. I did not freely commit that act. If I were drunk or tired and killed someone with my car, I would be more responsible for the evil committed because I had done things to give consent to that scenario arising. Namely, drinking or deliberately driving while tired. The weight of responsibility for an evil is what determines a persons moral culpability for the act, which determines where they spend their afterlife.
Suicide always meets the condition of grave matter, but what of the other two? Does a depressed person operate with deliberate consent? The answer is almost unequivocally “no.” For those lucky enough to not know how depression works, it shuts down your ability to choose happiness and hope. You don’t decide to miss meals. Your body simply doesn’t have the strength to eat. You don’t choose to miss work. Your body simply doesn’t have the strength to get out of bed. Most depressed people, most people who commit suicide, do not choose to kill themselves. They simply do not have the strength to go on.
“Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, G-d can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.” -Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2282-2283
No one knows for certain the fate of any individual, and the Church doesn’t ask us to decide. The Church asks us to pray for these individuals as we hope, as we always do, in G-d’s boundless, powerful desire for every single one of us to be with him in Heaven. G-d wants us with him more than we want to be with him. As long as there’s even a minuscule chance at redemption, he’s going to find us. The Christian response to suicide is not condemnation, but prayer and hope.
I’ve known about depression all my life. I had my first experience with it as a kid after my father died. I don’t remember much about that time except that I loved getting out of school on Tuesdays to go see a psychologist. Over the years I would dip back into it, but I’m lucky because the people in my life were always fighting for me. Depression, for some people, can be like a bullet in the head. You simply cannot go on with it. For me it has always been more like a bullet in the leg. As long as there are people around me to help, I can keep moving. Once they leave, though, I’m stuck. It hits me hardest at night and at times when I’m by myself. It’s been a long time since I’ve had professional help with this because I learned to lean on the people who loved me when I would get depressed and that had always been enough until recently.
For any number of reasons, some that I’m aware of and some that I haven’t figured out yet, I’ve been dipping back into depression for the past year or so. At first it meant long, anxiety-filled nights and difficulty in getting work done. Eventually it meant not being able to get out of bed for work or for class. I bombed most of my classes because I wasn’t showing up, but I still hadn’t put together what was happening. It took some really good friends of mine sitting me down in their living room to ask what was wrong for me to finally put it all together. Still, I’ve been keeping it to myself. There’s definitely a part of me that didn’t want to scandalize the people who look up to me and the people who know me as a Christian. What is a Christian without joy, after all? There’s also a part of me that wanted to hold onto the idea that I was strong enough to control my depression on my own.
Only a small number of people who are very close to me and the priests to whom I have been confessing have really known about this and I thought that was a prudent way to approach it. Then I read about Robin Williams. I love everything I’ve ever seen with Robin Williams in it (including his ridiculous, disgusting stand up. It’s Robin Williams!). Hearing stories this past week of all the whacky interactions he had with people only confirms my belief that he was the sort of man who made everyone he met happier than they’d been before seeing him. That is exactly the lifestyle I’ve always tried to live. Yet, here is this man who has probably brought a smile to every single face in America at some point in the past few decades, and he’s dead. Killed by his own demons. Demons we never saw. Private demons which took their toll. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I sat and pondered how such a man could do such a thing, if some day the people I love would do the same with me. These thoughts, coupled with the counsel of a fantastic priest I met and confessed to in Denver, led me to decide a few things. First, that I would not be ashamed of sharing my needs with people in my life, and second, that I would be seeking professional help to get out of the slump I’ve been in.
So to anyone who has worried about me lately, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I wasn’t kidding when you asked what I wanted to do and I said, “die.” I’m sorry that the thing you asked me to do didn’t get done in a timely manner because I spent too long trying to get out of bed that day or because every time I sat down to work on it I had an anxiety attack so I just left it alone. Sorry to those of you who live with depression for buying the lie that it’s something to be ashamed about. I hope I’m not contributing to the problem anymore. And sorry to you, readers. I’ve tried to work on this blog but in the past few months it’s been too hard to do so. I’ve been working on finishing up some posts and putting together new ones. I’ll be back. Don’t worry.
If you’re suffering, don’t suffer alone. Seek help. There is always someone willing to help. If you don’t feel that way, try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. ( 1-800-273-8255 ). Or try talking to a priest. Or a counselor. Just talk to someone.
And all of you, don’t worry too much about me. I’m a fighter.
P.S. DO NOT watch What Dreams May Come right now. You will not be able to handle the feels.