Robin Williams and Our Strange Times

by Jim Geraghty
Does our society set the stage for depression?

Monday’s awful, shocking news that comedian Robin Williams killed himself spurred a noisy and often argumentative discussion about depression, mental illness, and suicide.

In Williams’s death, everyone is suddenly confronted with this uncomfortable mystery: What could make him do it? How could someone choose to end his own life when he seemed to have it all, not merely in material or financial terms, but in the terms of family, friends, and fame?

The late actor Christopher Reeve wrote that after the riding accident that paralyzed him, when he was in the hospital and struggling with suicidal thoughts himself, his friend Williams snuck into the hospital, disguised himself as a doctor, and pretended to be an insane proctologist at Reeve’s bedside. The paralyzed actor said it was the first time he had laughed since the accident. How could a man so capable of bringing hope, joy, and laughter to others even in circumstances as bleak as that one be incapable of finding hope or joy in his own life?

A widely shared, widely discussed article from David Wong at comedy site Cracked suggested that most comedians, and funny souls, hide deep depression, sadness, or dark thoughts:

Chris Farley just made wacky slapstick movies about a fat guy who falls down a lot, right up until he stopped his own heart with a drug cocktail. The medium has nothing to do with it — comedy, of any sort, is usually a byproduct of a tumor that grows on the human soul. If you know a really funny person who isn’t tortured and broken inside, I’d say either A) they’ve just successfully hidden it from you, B) their [troubles are] buried so deep down that even they’re in denial about it, or C) they’re just some kind of a mystical creature I can’t begin to understand. I’m not saying anything science doesn’t already know, by the way. Find a comedian, and you’ll usually find somebody who had a [very bad] childhood.

After beginning with the troubling thought that the funniest and most laugh-inducing individuals among us are in fact the saddest and most troubled, Wong offered the point that Williams’s death should dispel the notion that clinical depression is connected to the conditions of a person’s life:

You’ve given us a chance to talk about this, and to prove that this has nothing to do with life circumstances — you were rich and accomplished and respected and beloved by friends and family, and in the end it meant [off-color metaphor for jack squat].

At the other end of the spectrum was Christian blogger Matt Walsh, who contended that public discussions of suicide too often ignore the conscious decision of the victim, and that public discussions of depression too often ignore any spiritual component:

It’s a tragic choice, truly, but it is a choice, and we have to remember that. Your suicide doesn’t happen to you; it doesn’t attack you like cancer or descend upon you like a tornado. It is a decision made by an individual. A bad decision. Always a bad decision. . . .

We are more than our brains and bigger than our bodies. Depression is a mental affliction, yes, but also spiritual. That isn’t to say that a depressed person is evil or weak, just that his depression is deeper and more profound than a simple matter of disproportioned brain chemicals. And before I’m accused of being someone who “doesn’t understand,” let me assure you that I have struggled with this my entire life.

Cue the furious comments sections.

Our ability to take just about any event and turn it into an online argument is one of our modern society’s mentally unhealthy habits. In fact, if we wanted to build a culture that deliberately cultivated feelings of depression, isolation, anger, and despair, how different would it look from the one we have now?

The first key aspect of this perfect depressive dystopia would be to get as many people as possible interacting with screens, instead of with flesh-and-blood human beings, as often as possible. (Pause for the irony that you’re almost certainly reading this on a screen.) Prevalent aspects of human contact from the dawn of human civilization — eye contact, tone of voice, volume of voice, sarcasm and inflection, posture, body language — would be removed from the increasingly common forms of communication, and everyone would spend as much time as possible interpreting the true meaning of hieroglyphics that are supposed to resemble human faces. Miscommunications, perceived insults, and fights would grow apace.

This depressive world would remove the tactile sensation of human touch, expressed in a romantic and sexual sense but also in the gestures of a handshake, a hand on the shoulder, a hug, a pat on the back. Entire friendships would begin and end online, with the individuals never interacting in person.

The constantly online life would undoubtedly come at the expense of the offline life. People would interact with their neighbors less. There would be fewer shared social experiences — the social phenomenon of Bowling Alone on steroids. The offline world would seem more full of strangers, more suspicious, more potentially dangerous, full of vivid, widely covered stories of violence and wrongdoing reminding us to not trust each other.

The constant online presence would lead to a world of nonstop instant reaction, where everyone could immediately transmit the first thought that popped into his head in response to news. Everyone’s first reaction would become his defining reaction, particularly if it’s dumb or knee-jerk. If it was racist, sexist, hateful, or obnoxious, even better. Those horrified would then share and retweet it to their friends and followers, spreading the perception that the world was overpopulated with hateful idiots, and that average Americans — or average human beings! – were rather nasty, ignorant creatures unworthy of respect or affection. Many people would quickly and easily forget that the people who comment on Internet websites represent a small slice of the population, a fraction predisposed to getting pleasure from posting shocking, obnoxious, or hateful material.

The widespread perception that almost everyone else was a moron — why, just look at the things people post and say on the Internet! – would facilitate a certain philosophy of narcissism; we would have people walking around convinced they’re much smarter, and much more sophisticated and enlightened, than everyone else.

Marinating in the perception that most people are stupid, hateful, sick, and needlessly cruel would undoubtedly alter people’s aspirations and ambitions in life. Why strive to create a new invention, miracle cure, remarkable technology, or wondrous innovation to help the masses? It would be pearls before swine, a gift to a thoroughly undeserving population that had earned its miserable circumstances. The hopeless ignorance and hateful philosophies of the great unwashed might, however, spur quiet calls for the restoration of a properly thinking aristocracy to help steer society in the correct direction.

If we wanted to build a society designed to promote depression, we would want to make children seem like a burden. Children are a smaller, slightly altered version of ourselves; Christopher Hitchens described parenthood as “realizing that your heart is running around in somebody else’s body.” To hate life, you have to hate children. If they are a form of immortality — half of our genetic code and half of our habits, good and ill, walking around a generation later — then a depressive society would condition its members to hate the possibilities of their future.

If we wanted to build a society designed to promote depression, we would want to make old age seem to be a horrible fate. (It is the only alternative to death!) Our depressive society would want to not merely celebrate youth, but we would want to constantly reinforce the sense that one is approaching mental and physical obsolescence. A celebrity who appeared much younger than her years would be celebrated and everyone would openly demand to know her secret. The unspoken expectation would be that anyone could achieve the same result if she simply tried hard enough. We would exclaim, “Man, he’s getting old!” in response to those who didn’t look the same as when we first saw them.

We would want to make sure that appearances not merely counted, but that attractiveness is preeminent. That anonymous and yet public realm of the Internet would ensure that anyone in the world could safely mock the appearance of others to a public audience and then return to picking Cheetos out of his chest hair.

If all of this sounds depressing . . . then let’s all do a little something to negate all of these depressive forces, shall we?

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.