With his manic voice still echoing in our ears, it is tragic to think that Robin Williams brought joy into the lives of millions, except for the most important person of all: himself. It’s not news that the rich and famous can be as disturbed and desperate as anyone else and can feel hopelessly lost. Yet such stories always have powerful resonance with those of us who cannot imagine being unhappy if blessed with lives of such achievement, comfort, and glamor.
The news of Williams’s suicide reminded me of an acquaintance of mine a decade ago. He was at the pinnacle of New York society, held a powerful position in the financial world, and had a beautiful and accomplished wife and lovely family. I respected his achievements and, quite frankly, envied his position and life. I was just at that stage where one begins to realize that not all of one’s dreams will come true, no matter how hard one works, how many opportunities one gets, or how much one believes that he could do the job just as well, if given the chance.
I worked briefly and indirectly with this man at one of his volunteer positions. For me, it was a chance to encounter a world with which I had had no real contact, and which I didn’t quite know existed. For him, it was but one of many such commitments, secondary to his real work. For all that, he was kind to me and though noncommittal in general, pleasant to deal with.
Over the few months that I worked with him, and the few succeeding years when I would very occasionally run into him, I learned more about the high society in which he moved. It was all a bit of a revelation to me, good Midwesterner that I was, to see that there really was a ruling class. It may well have been based on a meritocracy of sorts, but its barriers were real and even a greenhorn like me understood that entry into it was all but impossible given the professional trajectory on which I was embarked. I looked at my acquaintance and wondered what it would be like to live in the apartment across from Central Park, to sit on prestigious boards, regularly to mingle with other movers and shakers.
And then, a few years after I had moved away from the New York area, I read that he had killed himself. He walked out of his Upper East Side apartment and drove away from his life, knowing he would never again see or hold or kiss his wife and children. He brought a gun with him, despite all his achievement and experiences, despite knowing that neither he nor his family ever had to worry about paying the mortgage or providing a college education, despite knowing that he could afford to indulge in things 99 percent of Americans could only dream of. He left love and respect and good works behind, seeing only an abyss before him.
News reports later indicated that he had suffered from depression for years despite the labors that had brought him wealth and influence and made him shine in my eyes. He must have struggled; he called his wife the day he ended his life; he was, in a very fundamental way, trying to reach home and some type of safety that only he understood and which maybe could have saved him.
I did not know this man very well, and I could not truthfully call him a friend. He was an acquaintance, a brief encounter in my life. And yet the news of his suicide shook me. His act forced me to look at the truly deep and dark forces inside people that can make all the things we care about, all the people we love, and all our achievements meaningless. I had never known anyone who committed suicide; I did not know that over 26 percent of Americans 18 years and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health; or that more than 38,000 Americans committed suicide in 2010, a rate that has been rising for 15 years.
For many days, I thought about my acquaintance, trying to understand how he could have given all that up, most of all his family, but also not insignificantly those things that so many of us strive for and never reach. If someone so powerful could feel so helpless, how much worse must it be for so many with so much less? The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” But if someone cannot revoke the darkest distress over something internal from which he cannot escape, how can he be helped?
I never understood my acquaintance’s act, because understanding such an act from the outside is impossible. I found myself almost angry with him for forcing me to see things that I wanted to deny; by having to accept that whether rich or poor, famous or unknown, there are those with demons that most of us can only be thankful we never even glimpse.
The closest I came to grasping it was when I unburdened myself to my wife. How, I almost pleaded with her, could he walk out of that apartment, knowing he would go kill himself? Her response chilled me but also gave a dread understanding. It was because he had already been dead for a long time, she answered.
It is a few years late, but for him, and for Robin Williams, rest in peace.
— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.