Why do Our Comedians Kill Themselves?

640px-Robin_Williams_picture copyThe tragic suicide of comedian Robin Williams contains many lessons. Everyone is quick to point out the contradictions of his life. Here was a man who had everything the world had to offer to fill his life—money, fame and an entertaining lifestyle. And yet far from satisfying him, he was left with an emptiness that led to two failed marriages, drugs, depression, bankruptcy and finally despair.

The contradiction becomes even more striking by the fact that he was a comedian. He made his living by making people laugh. His job was to mock, ridicule and make light of everything. Nothing was sacred or spared from his jibes. On the outside, he may well have laughed and joked, but only to escape from the sorrows on the inside where he wept and sobbed.

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The Robin Williams tragedy does more than just highlight the futility of fame and wealth. The vanity of such pursuits has been known from time immemorial. Rather, this tragedy points to more profound problems that haunt and plague postmodern man in his futile search for meaning.

What went wrong was not only the failure of an individual but of a culture. It reflects the organization of a life of material comfort, far from the spiritual or metaphysical realms that force men to take life seriously. It indicts a superficial worldview, which skims the surface of things without desiring to make the effort to look at things more profoundly. In such a whirling fast world full of stress and anxiety, Williams’ death points to the rejection of the psychological repose found in tranquility, recollection, and true leisure in favor of the exhaustion of constant fun and games.

The suicide of Robin Williams calls to mind the condition that Saint Thomas Aquinas calls acedia, which he defines as the weariness of holy and spiritual things and a subsequent sadness of living. As a spiritual being, the man afflicted with acedia denies his spiritual appetites. “He does not want to be what God wants him to be,” notes philosopher Josef Pieper, “and that means that he does not want to be what he really, and in the ultimate sense, is.” This refusal to consider the spiritual cannot help but bring sadness, listlessness and even despair.

And that is what is seen today. Those things that can satisfy the soul—beauty, sublimity or sanctity—are rejected or at least sidelined. They are replaced by the frenetic intemperance of the times, where sensation, immediacy, and impact rule. In such a culture, the comedian is the high priest who questions everything, derides authority and officiates at the performance of a great comedy.

In this great comedy, life becomes a big party on the outside, while inside so many heartsa_great_sadness_over_the_nation bleed. Actors mask the great sorrows that afflict them and invite all to laugh with them. And the spectators mask their own personal tragedies, and play their role by heartily laughing. Thus, actors and spectators all form part of a single grand spectacle fraught with contradiction. With each new act, the jokes become flatter and crasser.

Few have the courage to speak up and denounce this farce. They prefer to play along with the comedy and pretend that everyone is happy. Only shocking tragedies, like the suicide of Robin Williams, serve to briefly unmask the travesty until the next act inevitably gets under way.

There are lessons to be learned from the Williams’ suicide: happiness is not found in material comfort or endless entertainment. Indeed, despite the outward appearance of the great comedy, real happiness eludes the present society and a great sadness has descended upon the land.

Yet another lesson is that some degree of happiness can be found by taking a contrary course. This is done when individuals look beyond self-gratification and seek to be true to their own nature. This happens when they harmoniously satisfy both material and spiritual appetites by searching for things of excellence, beauty and sublimity. They start looking towards higher principles, the common good, or ultimately towards God, thus giving meaning and purpose to their lives.

Then the great comedy is replaced by the great pageant of history, a spectacular dramaSubscription8.11 that gives rise to works of art, fabulous cultural achievements, great feats, and acts of religious piety. This drama has the capacity of inciting sentiments of loyalty, dedication, and devotion that can fill the vast emptiness left by the tragic comedy.






As published in the Spero

  • jea2comments

    Good article and very true.

  • Cole

    This oversimplifies things and completely neglects that depression is a psychological condition that sometimes cannot be avoided. While you do bring up good points, I think it is shameful that you should use the death of someone you don’t personally know to make those points.That is called being judgmental.

    • Ray

      Interesting that the word “judgmental” is easily waved around. Aren’t we being judgmental when we say somebody is being judgmental? I suppose you would only call it judgmental when you do not agree with the point. And certainly one cannot know everybody personally; but we still have liberty to make our point. Still a good article.

      • Conrado

        Google “comedians, entertainers who committed suicide” and draw your own conclusions.

    • 441019

      I don’t think the author, John Horvat, was judging Robin Williams–only pointing out what we can learn from his death, and that it reflects the failure of our culture. People with clinical depresssion do need help, but drugs may not be the answer–it’s complicated. However, our beliefs and our spiritual condition are very important. I have had difficulties and depression in my life, but belief in God, prayer and meditation, and trying to have the correct beliefs, attitudes, and morals, etc.–trying to be true to myself, has helped me greatly.

  • Charles McEwan

    We should be allowed to reflect on events and try and learn from them. Robin Williams had everything the world considers of value so what went wrong? Clearly he had a troubled soul and all the prestige of the world didn’t, in the final analysis, help him. Surely there is a message here about the values of the modern world.

  • JGF

    What creates the conditions for depression? Is not precisely because men live such contradictory lives that leads to their sense of emptiness and eventually depression.Certainly psychological and even physiological elements can play a role but if men were taught the truths enunciated in this article from the crib he would more easily come to grips with reality.

  • Roark Mitzell

    Although Williams was a self professed Presbyterian, many of his routines in later life mocked religiosity and attacked, in particular, the Catholic Faith. I saw several of those routines on late night TV, and they really seemed to be forced. I don’t think his heart was really vested in those acts, but I think he was very fearful of not taking the easy road, and going along with the anti-religious sentiments of so many people in Hollywood, and the industry. I think Mr. Horvat was on the mark. We live in a society in which nothing is sacred, including life itself. How easily we can then fall into the despondency of despair, and be driven to violent acts, against others, and self destruction.

  • ThankfultoGodAlmighty

    A very good an sober article. Thanks. If people would just listen to the word of God in Silence. What a difference it would make for the individual and society in general. It has made a huge impact in mine.

  • Frederick Schwab

    People with depression look for humor in everyday life to lift themselves up and cope with dark moods. Additionally, depression is aggravated by lack of sunshine as in the winter months. Brain chemistry is unbalanced to begin with and it affects the ability to sleep properly. Given normal social activities where alcohol and drugs are accepted and available, one can easily get too much of a mood lift out of the dark moods. Like a stretched rubber band being released. In Robin’s history, he was divorced and saddled with some oppressive
    financial burdens (women, at the behest of their attorneys are encouraged to get everything they can in a divorce). Unfortunately, Robin fell back into alcohol and drugs which exacerbated his depression and made reclaiming recovery more difficult. The bad part of some drugs is that, by blocking re uptake of dopamine one experiences the maximum feel-good possible. When the drug wears off, there is no dopamine available and one experiences the maximum feel-bad (very dark place). The 12 step program is actually the spiritual development program of St. Ignatius. If Robin had a better spiritual formation, he would likely still be with us.

  • Cheryl Blankenship

    His Death saddens me deeply, as to the pain he must have felt., He was a troubled soul, a soul in search of Peace.
    A Peace that can only be found in the Love of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
    I pray that we approach all people, with the Love of Our Lord always, and in each and every circumstance., myself included.