There’s a famous scene in Dead Poet’s Society where Robin Williams’ character, teacher, John Keating, gathers his young male students at their desks and asks them why we read and write poetry. Keating gives credence to the value of “loftier” pursuits like engineering and the study of law, but he ponders why we read and write poetry. The students gaze upon their teacher in awe, savoring every drip of knowledge that spills from the lips of their attentive and wise leader.
Keating plays a passionate teacher. He is smart and he challenges his students. He quotes and reads from the canonical poets as though he himself is the author of such verse. Keating not only reads the poems to his students, but he IS them. He becomes the poem. He shows his students the emotion behind the poem. He breathes life into those verses.
My choice to become an English teacher was inspired by three people: an academic adviser for the College of Education at Penn State who frequented Ruby Tuesday when I was a bartender there; Jonathon Kozol, a former educator who wrote (among several other poignant titles) Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools; and John Keating.
I grew up on Robin Williams. One of my favorite TV shows was Mork and Mindy. I’ll not forget how “controversial” it was when Williams played the role of Mrs. Doubtfire, even though Dustin Hoffman had already traveled down that road in his role as Tootsie, long before Williams put on a pair of “sensible” heels.
And today, I am finding myself incredibly affected by his death.
I suppose, perhaps, that I would not feel this strongly had I not experienced the death of my own spouse, but here I am, today, shocked, saddened, and disappointed with the way much of our culture has responded to his death.
I’ve read a few posts on my Newsfeed today, clarifying that my friends are saddened by his death, but are disappointed in Williams’ “selfish” need to “commit” suicide. I’ve seen a few interviews whereby reporters and respondents are eager to point out any role that drugs or alcohol might have had.
And I just wanna say one thing…
All of that kind of thinking is….
Listen up, people, coz I’m about to get on a soapbox here because I’m madder than hell, and you should be too. And I hope– and pray!– to GOD that we all wake the fuck up; that it doesn’t take the death of someone close to you to wisen you up…because let me tell you a little bit about the way I see things…
First of all….let’s deal with the drugs and alcohol bit. It’s no secret that Mr. Williams struggled with this. How could it be a secret? We are a culture that preys on the demons of our “superstars.” We expect them to be heros, celebrities, gods…and we neglect that they, too, are human. But drugs and alcohol weren’t what killed him. And it’s like some people are disappointed that he didn’t turn to those things in order to “commit” suicide. It’s as though we want to point the finger of blame at such substances to ease the burden of maybe feeling sad for the plight of someone else, as if we can just brush off his death with the passive, “Oh, well he drank too much or took a bunch of pills….go figure…he had it coming.” NO, NO, NO!!! Don’t you see? Drugs and alcohol were a symptom of a much larger problem… and in this case, it seems like that problem was depression.
And depression is something no one wants to talk about. If we admit we are depressed, we admit defeat, we admit we can’t handle our own shit, right? And who wants to admit that? We like to present ourselves as a strong-willed people, able and fully capable of solving our own problems and winning our own battles. We are a proud people. If I admit I’m depressed, that makes me a loser, right? Our culture has stigmatized depression and those who suffer from it. It is the elephant that is likely in your own family’s room.
And what about this “selfish” act of “committing” suicide?
All misguided thinking there, too.
Suicide is not selfish. Go ahead– sound the alarms…what did she just say???? That suicide is not selfish? WTF? Someone needs to get her medicated…clearly, she is outside her mind.
No, no I am not. I am fully in control here on this one….
Suicide to you and to me may seem “selfish,” but you and I are not depressed. We are seeing our lives more clearly, and so it would stand to reason for us to see this act as selfish.
But to the person who is depressed?
It probably feels like the single most loving thing one can do for his/her family: to relieve one’s family of the “burden” that the depressed person has become.
Still wanting to sound the alarms? Hold on, coz I’m not done yet…
Let me share with you something that I have long kept mostly to myself…and it’s gonna hurt…real bad…so hold on…and please, learn from my story…
I’d often have “check-in” moments with Jeff, particularly since his stint at Hershey several years ago. I’d just ask him a few questions to assess how he was doing; how he was feeling; if he was getting depressed. The question I always asked, at every “check-in” was: are you happy?
Just a few months before he died, I conducted my usual check-in. We were coming back from Dairy Queen, me pounding an M&M Blizzard and Jeff lulling over a vanilla ice cream cone with chocolate jimmies (“JIMMIES,” he’d insist, “not SPRINKLES!”). We were on Atherton Street, stopped at the light by Kinko’s. I turned to him and asked, “Are you happy?”
“With you, Liz, yes. I’m very happy with you and with us. But everything else– not being able to find a job, getting screwed over by people I thought were my friends? Sometimes I just wish I was dead.”
Sometimes I just wish I was dead.
I entertained that thought with him while the light turned green and we continued up Atherton Street. I asked him to please not say such crazy things; I asked him to consider what being dead would mean to me and to his and my family.
He did not have much of a response.
I’ve written before that I thought that Jeff was depressed. How could he have not been? I don’t need to re-tell that story. But what I do need to share is this:
When you are depressed, when you no longer feel like coming out of your house, when you are no longer showering or taking basic care of yourself…you see no way out. You see yourself as a burden. You see yourself as a “cost.” If Mr. Williams felt this way, I can understand how he would think that suicide might be the single most loving thing he could have done. Perhaps he felt as though he was “relieving” his loved ones of their “duty” to care for him.
To clarify, Jeff died of septic shock– a massive infection. He did not take his own life. But I have often wondered if he “passively” took his own life. After the Hershey thing, Jeff was on top of his health. Every blip on his home blood pressure monitor had him calling the doctor, checking to make sure everything was okay. He’d made changes in his lifestyle to promote a healthier living. He’d lost some weight. He was grateful for every breath that he took. He’d finally started to take charge of his own health!
But when his employment outlook seemed to grow dimmer and dimmer, that zeal for life seemed to fade. Whereas I had grown accustomed to him fighting for whatever it was that he wanted, he had begun to give up.
Jeff was quite aware in those last few weeks that he was sick. He continued to brush it off.
He was doing nothing about it.
No matter how much I pleaded with him, or how much our niece, Taylor, pleaded with him, he would not seek help from a doctor.
Even on his last day, he’d argued with me about calling an ambulance.
On that last day, before they put him under to run some tests, I held his hand and I said, “You fight like hell, okay?” And he, seeming defeated, said to me, “Yeah, whatever.”
He gave up.
He could not see a way out.
When you are suffering from depression, you cannot see a way out.
No matter what anyone tells you, no matter how much love you are shown, no matter what you say or do….there is no way out.
For Mr. Williams, the only way out was to take his own life. He was searching for peace, peace among all the confusion and unrest that existed inside of his head. He did not “commit” suicide. He took his own life. His death was by suicide. Why the distinction in language? Because we need a paradigm shift. When we say someone “committed” suicide, the word “committed” associates a crime with that act (we commonly say “the perpetrator committed a crime.”); it is a negative association and it is one in which we have difficulty discussing. Hell, even take a look at the way life insurance is set up…if the policyholder “commits” suicide, the beneficiary receives no payout. Nice, huh? As though the beneficiary should be punished. But what if we say “he took his own life?” Say that to yourself a few times. Here. I’ll even do it for you…
He took his own life.
He took his own life.
He. Took. His. Own. Life.
Now imagine what it must feel like to actually do that– to be willing to take your own life. Pretty depressing, right?
And that’s what we need to be talking about– depression!
We don’t need to be talking about how “selfish” he was, or that he “committed” suicide. We don’t need to be pointing our judgmental fingers at the role that drugs or alcohol played in his life.
We need to stop and think, and we need to be thinking about how we can do better. How can we relieve the stigma of mental illness, of depression? How can we make it a topic that is more readily discussed? How can we help those who are suffering from it?
Because I didn’t know.
I didn’t know what to do.
I couldn’t force him to do anything that he didn’t want to do.
In that scene, Keating gives his students the answer for why we read and write poetry by first offering, “we read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion.” He continues, “…poetry, beauty, romance, love; these are what we stay alive for.” He goes on to paraphrase from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:
“O me, O life of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
What good amid these O me, O life?
That you are here. That life exists and identity.
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Keating challenges his impressionable students by reiterating that last line: “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
This is what I hope all fans of Robin Williams will learn; it is what I have learned since the death of my own spouse, and it is what Mr. Williams’ wife will also realize as she works through her own, very private grief: the powerful play continues, and I may contribute a verse. Life exists! I can make a difference. I can have a good life. I can be in the service of others. I can live and love and grow. Maybe, just maybe, because I have shared my story about love, loss, and depression, maybe a life will be saved. Just one life. Or maybe someone will be inspired to do better. Or maybe someone will just wake up. All of those seem like a good things.
As Keating asks his students, I also ask of you, dear readers:
What will your verse be?
There is something about grief that stirs you up inside, changes you, makes you more passionate about living. In that way, it is positive and it is powerful. But it comes at an extreme cost. Do not wait for the death of someone close to you to be “enlightened” to how your gifts just might change the world. Do not look to what others are doing. Do not cast judgment. If what you are saying or how you are behaving or how you are viewing the world is not in the service of love or kindness, then take a moment and please remember Mr. Williams and his family. Please remember Jeff. And me. And do not wait for something catastrophic to happen in your life before deciding to contribute a verse.