Suicide and Choice: An Open Letter to Matt Walsh

Dear Mr. Walsh,

You have 225,000 Facebook fans. I am, decidely, shall we say, less popular. Like you, I hold the Word of God and absolute truth dear. I have spent the last eight years of my life studying the Bible and theology full-time. I am an ordained pastor. I too value the power of family. My greatest joy, my greatest task on this earth is to love the two children, twins in fact, like you have, whom God has given me and equip them to live happy lives and to change this world for the better. I am imperfect, but committed, to the task. I hope that at our best, we are ultimately on the same team.

I don’t have fans, but I do have children, family, friends, parishioners, colleagues. Today you chose to publicly talk about Robin Williams’s death. As I understand it, you are not a close friend of Robin Williams. You have never worked with him. You are not his co-star, his brother, his child, his pastor, his psychologist…  But today you made a choice. A choice to insult one famous person, and millions of us along with him. You claimed to know more about him, his life, and the lives of millions of us struggling with depression than anyone else. The Word of God, the absolute truth, the traditional family, all values you say you uphold and hold dear, did not make you do this. You chose to. 

You and I do agree about the importance of recognizing our own choices, owning them, and accepting them as our own. 

Robin Williams was an inspiration to me. I always liked his serious roles, when the funny man calmed down, most. Dead Poet’s Society, despite its central plot of a teen suicide, had no small role in keeping me alive in my own adolescent battle against depression. I see a sliver of a common personality trait between us in how he would use humour to cope with his depression.

But my love of his movies is not why I cried when I learned he had died. It was not because I was nobly compassionate to his family, either. I cried perhaps a bit more selfishly because it was a devasting reminder to me that I am battling a potentially deadly disease. That as hard as I push myself believing that my depression will be ‘‘better’’ at the next accomplishment or milestone of my life, it could still yet kill me. Robin Williams was wildly successful beyond what will likely ever happen to me. Frankly, beyond what I even seek.

But I am driven and ambitious in my own way. Depression tells me to cover myself in my blanket and cry, to close out the world and give up. And I do that sometimes. Sometimes for a few hours. Sometimes for a few days. But I will myself to get up. Somehow I have willed myself through constant, physically painful, malaise; pushed myself through a desire to die and forged a passion for living. But that passion for living exhausts me. Every hour of gleeful extroversion costs hours of silent retreat. 

When I was a fifteen year old, I watched Dead Poet’s Society alone in the dark and spent my school days with decidedly less compelling English teachers. I used to spend time doodling, writing over and over, ‘’I want to die,’’ where my classmates wrote notes, or at least engaged in happier distractions. People who believed about depression like you do, Mr. Walsh, told me I was selfish. They told me I was lazy. They told me I was worthless. I dropped out of high school. Nobody made me do that. Admittedly, nobody made staying in school particularly appealing, either, but in the end, it was my choice.

Somehow, though, it’s fifteen years later. I am alive. I pushed myself to dismiss those who called me selfish, lazy, and worthless as the misguided liars that they were. I got my GED. I went to college. I did quite well in fact. I went to seminary. I am now getting a PhD. I got married. I have had two children. I got my dream job.  

But my success story is not about my will power conquering depression. Because that did not happen. Depression and I are in a constant struggle. And sometimes I win. But let me tell you something about what I want. ‘’I’’ want to live. I want to raise my children. I want to hug them and tell them I love them every day until I’m too old to lift my arms around them, and even then, I will still want to. I want to work as a pastor until my eyes can’t read the words on Bible’s page, until my voice can’t even whisper any more Good News. I want people to come to me and tell me what is going on in their lives, to seek advice, to seek assurance that I love them, that God loves them, until they are stunned such a wrinkly old man is even breathing. That is what ‘’I’’ want.

If I commit suicide, perhaps, as you claim, it will be ‘’my’’ choice. But I doubt it. I have spent more than half my life listening to my own body betray me, my own mind telling me that it would be better to die. And while my external life circumstances have varied how tempting those whispers are, nothing has ever gone so well that they have stopped. No saving relationship with my Lord Jesus Christ. No compassionate bride holding my hands at the altar. No giggling twins in my arms. Nothing has made depression go away.

Living is the pro-active choice. Is suicide a choice? It has been a free choice every time I have ever said no so far. I have chosen to say no. That is not because we can blindly, arrogantly, say that it is a moral choice, though. It is because I have been really lucky that I am (still) healthy enough to say no. The thing is, saying ‘’no’’ to suicide is evidence that I am healthy enough to say no. But, if I should ever commit suicide, it will not be because ‘’I’’ made the choice, but because my depression would have. Because the depression would have won its battle over me, no medically or morally differently than if cancer had won a battle over me.

And the fact that Robin Williams lost that battle is a tragedy and not a choice. 

The absolute truth you say your blog upholds, requires you to spend a lot more time talking to those who are depressed, studying clinical depression, learning stories more than you proclaim morality, perhaps simply to know that you are not a psychologist, you are not an expert, and you should not be the blogger on this topic. The family you claim your blog defends requires you have to look at these tragedies and these battles with a lot more compassion and frankly humility. 

And the commitment to making sure people know when they have made a choice… that requires you to apologize.