Robin Williams, Suicide, and "Choice"

I've had a variety of thoughts since hearing about the death of Robin Williams. I haven't, and will not be, voicing most of them. There is so much involved in our cultural response to death, suicide, and mental illness, that I think it's nearly impossible to speak about such things without having a long, long conversation. All the more so if we take our words seriously, and that is what Stoicism asks of us.

I do, however, have one thing to say. I have read many statements in sympathy and in anger that talk about how suicide was Mr. Williams' "choice." As Stoics, the concept of choice is pretty damned important, and I want to suggest that we think deeply before using it.

Suicide is often the outcome of mental illness, which it definitely seems to be in this case. Suicidal ideation is a symptom of depression, with which we know Mr. Williams struggled. Such thoughts are not the product of a rational mind sizing up life and finding it wanting. They are the outcome of a chemical imbalance that strips the world of meaning. Those dismal thoughts are also then evaluated by a "rational faculty" that itself is barely worth the term since it too is hobbled by the physical imbalances in the brain. Actions during a depression are chosen, yes, but in a manner that makes the word "choice" a caricature of what we should commonly mean. I would suggest we reserve "choice" for clearer instances and leave it be when it comes to situations where we can never know, like this one.

Well, as I said, there is too much to say on these topics. Concerning Robin Williams, I would like to see the man's life celebrated by those who felt a connection to him. I also hope that his death sparks a conversation, but one that doesn't drag him into it. Death, suicide, and mental illness are worthy topics for Stoics to discuss. Speculation on the final moments of a man's life? Not so much.

If you or a friend need someone to talk to follow this link: National Lifeline



Thumbnail image for posted links attributed to Vincepal on Flickr.

The Greatness of "Depression Part 2: Hyberbole and a Half"

Allie Brosh of Hyberbole and a Half deals with physical depression. So do I. So do many. I added the descriptor "physical" because we aren't wrestling with a bummer day or an un-cheery outlook on life. We're living with a sudden lack of access to the chemicals that make feelings possible. Hyberbole and a Half's most recent comic, Depression Part 2, does a brilliant job of describing the experience.

The Stoic philosophy, used poorly, can be problematic for people with depression and other emotional disorders. Stoicism's often single-minded focus on the human capacity to reason can make its proponents insensitive to problems that can't be solved by thinking better. Clear and rational thought depends on a well-oiled mental machine and no philosophy can magic up better serotonin receptors. This isn't to say that Stoicism has nothing to say to those with emotional disorders*, I use it myself! I'm just saying we need to realize that Reason is not the Force. A person with depression can't simply let reason flow through them. Reason is built on physical processes. We're material beings.

Anyway, I really liked that comic. Check it out.

A panel of  De  pression Part 2  by  Allie Brosh .

A panel of Depression Part 2 by Allie Brosh.

*Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, founded on Stoic principles, consistently tests as the most effective non-drug method for treating emotional disorders. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Stoicism and the Blues

 Originally posted Nov 5, 2011 on

Today I have got out of all trouble, or rather I have cast out all trouble, for it was not outside, but within and in my opinions.

-Marcus Aurelius

I had a rough couple of days this week. I've dealt with depression on and off (mostly on) since about the age of twelve. A few days ago, it came back full force. And yes, I know that technically depression needs to stick around for a couple weeks to be a medical depression, but it's so much easier to package the full continuum into a single term. Anyway, what a great test of my stoicism!

Stoicism demands that I have a clear understanding of what I control and what I do not. I've mentioned before that Stoics consider even my own body as outside my complete control. That principle isn't very hard to apply to aches in my joints, but things get murkier when it comes to my emotional states. Where do emotions fall on the control spectrum? They're so closely related to the all important stoic will. Epictetus listed the things in my control as: opinion, pursuit, desire, and aversion. There's definitely an emotional component to such terms as pursuit, desire, and aversion. So how should I treat my emotional state during depression?

My emotions are indifferent when they are not coupled with my opinions. This is completely my own thought, I can't back it up with Stoic quotes and such (maybe I'll be able to in the future). Still, look at this Aurelius quote: Today I have got out of all trouble, or rather I have cast out all trouble, for it was not outside, but within and in my opinions. Opinions come up a lot in Stoicism. This makes sense, opinions are formed by all the aspects of our mind that Stoics find important, like the will and reason. So the question becomes, where do my emotions meet my opinions?

I believe that my depression arrives prior to my negative thoughts. By which I mean, my brain becomes chemically imbalanced and it makes happy thoughts oh so hard to generate while stressful thoughts flow like water on a downhill slope. As such, my emotional state would be indifferent, neither virtue nor vice. My emotions are simply part of the environment I find myself in. On the other hand, if I  couple my emotions with my opinions, I am moved towards desire or aversion. In that case, my emotions become part of a process that is either virtuous or not.

If this is a workable concept in Stoicism, then treating my depression as an indifferent should led to tranquility. I'm happy to report it did. Not instantly, but my depression lasted days, not weeks. It worked like this: One day I wake up and basically feel muted. The world is sepia, with all the emotional color drained out of it. Half a day later, I start the standard process of building my thoughts on a scaffolding of depressed emotions, leading to an even darker place. Thankfully, I have developed a habit of reviewing Stoic quotes and the like. I begin questioning the nature of my depression. I decide that my emotional state is outside my control. As such, I refuse to predicate my approach to the world on my present emotional state. I fulfill all my duties, listen to and accept good advice from my wife, surround myself with good friends, and basically continue life without paying attention to my dull internal world. Within 48-hours, my chemical imbalance corrects itself. This is record time.

So that's what Stoicism did for me lately. I'm curious if other practicing Stoics have a different view of emotions and, if so, you'd be willing to share your wisdom. I'm always looking for a more stoic approach to Stoicism.