Yelling at Each Other About Robin Williams, Ann Coulter, Death, and God

Inevitably, Robin Williams’ suicide saw the “raising awareness about mental health issues” camp fighting it out online with the “he was a selfish git” crowd.

When the latter reject the “disease model” of addiction and mental illness — people like Theodore Dalrymple — they do so prompted by a laudable instinct:


They think depressed people or addicts use the “disease” model to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.

This is a bit like the New Atheists’ concept of “God,” as “an old man in the sky.” They proudly and loudly reject that concept, seemingly unaware (despite their alleged sophistication and superior education) that so do most actual believers.

Likewise, few addicts who accept the disease model (and not all do) use it as a “get out of jail free” card.

It’s called “How It Works” not “How It Lounges on the Couch Eating Cheetos and Watching Judge Judy.”

“What an order! I can’t go through with it” is right.

“Some of us thought we could find an easier, softer way, but we could not…”

Making amends, taking inventory, doing service and even prayer and meditation are exercises in responsibility and action.

Robin Williams apparently did all those things and stayed clean and sober for 20 years.

Then he “went out” in 2006 and was never the same.

“Cunning, baffling, powerful.”

Or, as Catholics like to say when they can’t explain something: “It’s a mystery…”

(If you say it in a somber enough voice, and include the “…”, it sounds satisfyingly deep.)

I’m not prepared to do an autopsy on Robin W’s “program.”

And just a reminder to Catholics that we have no certain knowledge of any deceased person’s ultimate fate, except in the case of the “saints” (who are not necessarily the “canonized…” — or even particularly “nice” or “sane” individuals).


Some excerpts from the Catechism on suicide:

Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God 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 God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.”

Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.” (…)

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, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

Again, we can engage in masturbatory theological debates about “where” Robin Williams is right now. I’ve seen them online.

When I heard comic Nick DiPaolo remark that he wasn’t prepared to say that Williams “is in heaven right now,” I thought that was his Catholic education kicking in. He quickly added, “Because that depends on which comic you ask” – a reference to the fact that Williams had a reputation in the comedy “community” as a joke thief, which is the first cardinal sin in that world.


Like the conversations about Williams’ “program,” we can only yell at each other for a limited number of words before humility, frustration or stupidity obliges us to move on to another topic.

While I’m on the topic of “suicide,” some thoughts on Ann Coulter and her column condemning the missionary doctor who caught Ebola in Africa.

Again, this is what the Church says :

Positive but indirect suicide committed without Divine consent is also unlawful unless, everything considered, there is sufficient reason for doing what will cause death to follow. Thus, it is not a sin, but an act of exalted virtue, to go into savage lands to preach the Gospel, or to the bedside of the plague stricken, to minister to them, although they who do so have before them the prospect of inevitable and speedy death; nor is it a sin for workmen in the discharge of duties to climb on roofs and buildings, thus exposing themselves to danger of death, etc. All this is lawful precisely because the act itself is good and upright, for in theory the persons in question have not in view either as end or means the evil result, that is, death, that will follow, and, moreover, if there be an evil result it is largely compensated for by the good and useful result which they seek.

On the other hand there is sin in exposing oneself to danger of death to display courage, to win a wager, etc., because in all these cases the end does not in any way compensate for the danger of death that is run. To judge whether or not there is sufficient reason for an act which will apparently be followed by death, all the circumstances must be weighed, namely, the importance of the good result, the greater or less certainty of its being attained, the greater or less danger of death, etc., all questions which may in a specific case be very difficult to solve.


Coulter’s critics seem to believe that the doctor’s overseas mission was God’s will because it was so obviously a noble thing to do.

However, the stories of the saints are shot through with equally laudable but wrongheaded “false starts.”

St. Therese of Lisieux also wanted to be an African missionary. Then she wanted to get into the convent while underage and went all the way to the pope to plead her case; he told her to wait.

It is possible to be well-intentioned and pious and be driven by self-will.

I’m not saying that’s what motivated the Ebola dude.

I’m just reminding the Coulter-critics that they could be almost as “wrong” as they believe Coulter is.

Note that the Catechism says that a) suicide is selfish and “cowardly” (as Shep Smith put it) and b) diminished responsibility can be factored in.


It’s similar to the concept of “burden.”

Some people get very touchy if you even suggest that caring for another person is a burden.

But it IS a burden. (I’m on Sick Old Lady #3, fyi.)

That doesn’t mean you don’t do it anyhow. (See “How It Works,” above.)

It also doesn’t mean you have to “feel” happy about it.

If I waited until I “felt like” writing anything, I wouldn’t get much work done.

When I’m flying in a plane, it isn’t because gravity has temporarily ceased to exist.

Likewise, the corny motivational poster reads “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.” A similar attitude towards duty is sane and realistic.

Similarly, denying the reality of another’s “burden” is actually a romantic, self-righteous guilt trip — again, one that is well intentioned.


But it has more to do with (often theoretical) tender feelings than with the facts on the ground.

In other words, Robin Williams did a stupid, irresponsible thing by killing himself — actions have consequences — and, possibly, couldn’t help himself 100% because he was not in his right mind.

How far do we take the concept of “uncontrollable urges”?

I don’t know if it was original to this case — somehow I doubt it — but the prosecution asked rhetorically whether or not England’s John Christie would still have murdered all those women, had he been in the presence of an armed, uniformed policeman.

It seems obvious that the answer to this purely theoretical question is “no” and therefore, Christie knew the difference between right and wrong and wasn’t under the influence of literally uncontrollable homicidal urges, which would more likely resemble a kind of moral and psychological diarrhea.

(Such out of control criminals exist, of course. They aren’t deterred very much by, say, the bank security guard standing in the corner.)

Now onto the always unpleasant topic of “raising awareness.”

Yes, it is good and important to take this opportunity to remind troubled individuals to “get help.”

However, we have to acknowledge, especially in this particular instance, that Robin Williams did “get help” — he voluntarily went back into rehab — and he took his own life anyhow.

So here is another instance where words exhaust their power to explain events to our puny satisfaction and thereby provide us with comforting certainty (and, perhaps, a truncheon to beat up on other people).


Many of us instinctively balk when presented with inherent contradictions, “negative capability” and paradox because we detect the alarming stink of “moral relativism” hovering above those concepts.

However, we can only debate the rightness and wrongness of someone’s suicidal actions to a point, before we have to acknowledge that we will never have all the answers this side of heaven.

I keep thinking of that astonishingly serviceable line from an old Kids In The Hall sketch, in which one exasperated alien says to another:

“We have reached the limits of what anal probing can teach us.”


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