Interpreting Robin Williams’ Death through the Heart instead of the Mind

Robin Williams’ death is tragic, and represents something of a surd to all of humanity. What Robin did flies in the face of the existentialistic philosophy that so many of us North Americans (if not the whole Western world) live robinunder, even if only loosely appreciated. Existentialistic philosophy as a philosophy of life basically is the idea that we only have the now to live in, and in order to experience life to the fullest we must press up against and essentially fight the other dominant reality of this life which is death. Existentialism as a philosophy of life says that humanity must do things that express our existence even in the face of the annihilation of our essence through death. Essentially, existentialism is an assertive philosophy of life that says that we only live if we assert our existence which then can collectively, as humanity, defines our essence as human beings. Here is how James Sire describes it:

Here is how an existentialist goes beyond nihilism. Nothing is of value in the objective world in which we become conscious, but while we are conscious we create value. The person who lives an authentic existence is the one who keeps ever aware of the absurdity of the cosmos but who rebels against that absurdity and creates meaning.[1]

Williams’ actions do not comport with a system of thought that places a premium on life lived in the face of death, who is rebelling, apparently against the cosmos’ depersonalizing call to non-existence. And yet this is exactly what Williams’ did, he rebelled against a dominant philosophy of life in the West, and he, at a more basic level, rebelled against the basic reality that God has recreated us through his image in Jesus Christ. So either way, what Robin Williams did causes all of us problems with processing his suicide.

And yet, there is a ‘beyond’ beyond all of this. Apparently Robin Williams suffered deeply with depression, and so this has become the way, the mechanism through which we as the human race are currently attempting to process and place what Williams did into an intelligible category (even if the category itself remains very subjective and even mysterious at a certain level). So he was deeply depressed, as are so many other folks in the world (I myself went through years of it); and this seems to be the way we have allowed what Robin Williams did to be intelligible. In our world today, in point of fact, what Robin did, people would say, was a result of him being mentally ill (and the language of mentally ill, which used to be rather taboo, has now almost become trendy); and I can accept that, to a degree, but I would like to press this further.

We have come to the conclusion so far that Robin did something that flies in the face of a major philosophy of life for the West, that he has rebelled against his humanity that he has from God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; and that he did what he did because he was mentally ill. But this conclusion seems somewhat hollow to me, I think the ‘mentally ill’ label shuts things down too quickly in the name of closure (even though we still remain shocked). Robin clearly was not thinking rationally, he obviously was not thinking spiritually (not rightly anyway), but really, as my last two points illicit, maybe the problem we are having with processing this adequately is that we have the wrong anthropology, that we are attempting to think of people as thinking/rationalist agents only. Interestingly the anthropology we get in the Bible is different. It does not define human beings by reducing them to rationalist thinking only agents, instead it talks much more about the most definitive component of human beings as the ‘heart’, as ‘affective’ beings who are motivated by certain desires, really as motivated by certain ‘loves.’

I think it would be interesting to attempt to think more about Robin’s suicide through a different anthropology, through a biblical anthropology, one that sees the affections as the core component of what defines humanity coram Deo (before God). If we did this it might reveal more about some of the deeper issues at play in the complex of Robin’s life, as well as in our own lives. This endeavor, should we undertake it, would probably not give us the ultimate answer to why Williams did what he did, but I am almost positive that it would reveal more than the current models being used by society and even Christians at large in attempting to make intelligible the unintelligible in the action of Robin Williams and of so many others among us.


[1] James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1997), 100.

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2 Responses to Interpreting Robin Williams’ Death through the Heart instead of the Mind

  1. Daniel says:

    I consider Blase Pascal’s quote from Pensees to be right in this matter:

    “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

    One of the easiest and best ways to view rational action is viewing people as agents who seek happiness. We may philosophically view this or that as peoples ultimate good or end, but we always seek happiness. Happiness is always more central to human action than any set of abstract concepts.

    Christianity simply suggests that we are looking for happiness in all the wrong places. It is happiness to be found in God and obedience to God which is true happiness.


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for your comment. I think Pascal has some excellent things to say in this regard. I was thinking more from a mentor of mine, and his work with Richard Sibbes (a Puritan), and Augustine, and from what he has called (as did many Puritans) Affective Theology, which thinks through the so called medieval tripartite faculty psychology in re to an anthropology which is made up of heart (affections) mind, will. More philosophically, James K.A. Smith has also picked up on this theme in his two volume set of Desiring the Kingdom & Imagining the Kingdom.

    I prefer to see love[s] as the category here because I think it is more biblically oriented.


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