A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 31, 2014
Psalm 130; Matthew 27:1-5 GNT
Traditionally there have been topics that have been considered too taboo—too unmentionable—to talk about in public. One of those taboo “S” words—suicide—has come to the forefront recently with the untimely, August 11th, death of actor Robin Williams. The world was thrown into a state of shock when it was revealed that Williams had hung himself. As days passed, we learned that not only had Robin Williams battled depression and drug abuse, but he had in recent months learned that he had Parkinson’s disease.
There was a time when a great deal of stigma was associated with suicide and it was only discussed in whispers. And at funerals or memorial services of those who had taken their own lives, suicide was never or rarely ever mentioned, as ministers or priests danced around the cause of death as if it was a sin to even mention suicide from the pulpit. In some Christian traditions, suicide has been considered a mortal, unforgiveable sin, and those who took their own lives were forbidden from being buried in certain cemeteries. One famous commentator posted a message saying he had lost all respect for Robin Williams because he had taken his own life. As noted in a USA Today article, “Too many people don’t understand depression as a medical issue. They see it as a moral failing.”1
But thankfully, the world has changed somewhat, and suicide and the circumstances preceding suicide are better understood. And suicide is no longer the taboo subject that it once was. And one ray of sunshine accompanying Robin Williams’ tragic death is that it gives opportunity for the topic of suicide to be openly discussed and, hopefully, better understood. Again quoting USA Today, Williams’ death can help others better understand and show compassion “by putting a sympathetic human face on the problem of mental illness.”1
As I approach this topic today, I do so with a certain amount of trepidation and with as much sensitivity as possible. I want to treat the subject in a very delicate manner, in part because most of us have been touched by it personally in some way. But I also approach the topic, not just as an armchair philosopher or theologian, but from a very personal frame of reference. Some years ago, I had a minister acquaintance who took his own life—also by hanging. When you lose someone you know or who is very close to you, it puts a whole different face on the difficult subject of suicide.
Sadly, the number of suicides in the United States has remained high—about 39,000 deaths each year—while other forms of death have fallen. More people die in the U.S. from suicide than in car accidents or from the AIDS virus. Or to put it another way, over 100 people a day die by suicide in the United States. Alarmingly, Americans in the same age bracket of Robin Williams (who was 63) are committing suicide at an increasing rate, making suicide in middle to late-middle-aged adults (baby boomers) higher than any other age group in America. That is to say, “suicide rates for adults aged 45-64 rose 40% from 1999 through 2011, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”2
Suicide is so hard on the family. And it opens up all kinds of hard questions and raw feelings of guilt, remorse, and often anger. Often it has been said of someone who took his or her own life, “What was he or she thinking? How could he or she have been so thoughtless to inflict such horrible pain on those left behind?” The reasons that lead people to take their own lives are many and varied and often poorly understood.
Some—as in the case of Judas Iscariot—take their own lives because of a sense of overwhelming remorse or guilt for something they have done, some great tragedy that cannot be undone. When Judas realized that his actions had been responsible for having an innocent man condemned to the most tragic death imaginable, he could no longer live with himself.
Others choose the route of taking their own lives due to a sense of hopelessness. When life circumstances become too difficult to manage and there seems to be no hope whatsoever that things will ever change for the better, death often is seen as a welcome way of escape. Being the primary caretaker for a loved one who has extensive medical problems and requires round-the-clock care; living daily with extreme, chronic pain for which there is no relief; the emotional feeling that one has committed moral failure, disappointing and losing the respect of family and friends; any of these reasons and more can lead to a sense of hopelessness and make suicide seem attractive. I remember many years ago, my dad had a co-worker who was accused of taking company tools and supplies home in his lunchbox at the end of the day for his own personal use. Rather than face the loss of his job and embarrassment of being charged and possibly imprisoned, he took his own life.
Often, as in the case of Robin Williams, suicide results because of mental depression, a state—the deep, dark hole—which most often the person cannot control. Depression, we now know, often results because of chemical imbalance in the body or brain, a condition that one who suffers from it cannot control any more than one can control the effects of asthma, a heart condition, or cancer. Some years ago, after walking offstage from a cheering audience, Williams stated, “Isn’t it funny how I can bring great happiness to all these people. But not to myself.”3 Often when one is in the deep, dark hole of depression, there seems to be no hope, no way out of the mental and emotional torment. So when someone says of one who has taken his own life, “What was he thinking?” the truth is, often those who are in the deepest, darkest depression, seeing no way out, are not thinking. And they should not be judged unmercifully because of it. Until one has been in the deepest, darkest pit of depression from which there seems to be no way out, or has had a close loved one who has been there, you can’t really understand what people go through.
And so, I would hope that the world—and that we too—can look at the illness of depression and depression’s sometimes most tragic end with a bit more sympathy, understanding, and compassion. It is important that we not treat those who have considered or attempted suicide as outcasts, but we embrace them with open arms and understanding. And if we have had a loved one who attempted or even succeeded at suicide, it is important that we not be angry at them or hold it against them. Often those who attempt suicide and fail are able to get past and rise up from the depths of their despair, like the proverbial phoenix rising up from the ashes, to live fulfilling, productive lives. Those who wrestle with the illness of depression and thoughts and/or attempts at suicide deserve every ounce of compassion and love we can extend them. Because if there is a God up in heaven, I believe that is the way God views those who struggle with the daily agony of depression, the sense of utter hopelessness, or that feeling of complete moral failure for which there seem to be no amends.
Unless we have been where Robin Williams and others like him have been, we should be slow to judge and condemn and eager to extend understanding and compassion. Amen.
1Liz Szabo, USA Today, Aug. ?, 2014.
2Zusha Elinson, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 13, 2014.
3Dick Cavett, TIME Magazine, Aug. 12, 2014.