Why Robin Williams died and why it matters

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Why Robin Williams died and why it matters

November 9, 2015 -

The suicide of Robin Williams in August 2014 dominated headlines for days. News reports attributed his death to depression coupled with substance abuse and linked his struggles to other performers with similar issues.

Now we know better. According to his widow, Susan Williams, the comedian had no alcohol or illegal drugs in his system when he died and had been sober for eight years. Nor was his death the result of depression. Rather, he was a victim of what Susan calls “the chemical warfare that no one knew about.” Specifically, her husband was a victim of Lewy body dementia (LBD), a progressive disease caused when normal proteins in the brain begin to aggregate and interfere with the brain’s ability to transmit signals.

LBD victims experience confusion, reduced attention span, memory loss, hallucinations, and wide mood swings. Doctors who examined autopsy results told Susan that her husband’s disease progression was one of the worst they had ever seen. She now believes that Robin knew he was losing his cognitive abilities, and chose to die before his condition got even worse.

This news is important for several reasons.

First, it highlights the fact that many people face devastating diseases most of us don’t know exist. According to the National Institute of Health, LBD afflicts one million people in the U.S. Yet I had never heard of it before Susan Williams made her husband’s condition public.

Second, her report shows that it’s always too soon to judge other people. It is never true that “I know how you feel.” Even if I am in the exact circumstances you face, I experience them differently than you do. I remember reading a counselor’s advice when dealing with people who disappoint or frustrate you: there’s always “one more thing” you don’t know. If you knew that fact or factor, you might still disagree with their behavior, but you would understand it better.

How is this discussion relevant for culture-changing Christians?

Believers need to speak prophetically and work boldly to counter the moral and spiritual degeneration of our day. But we must love those we are called to serve. We are no better than they. Their struggles are likely not ours, or ours theirs. We are beggars helping other beggars find bread. When we seek to understand those we seek to persuade, our compassion reflects the transforming grace of Jesus. (Tweet this)

I just returned from leading a study tour of Greece and Turkey, where we visited the grave of John at Ephesus. After he returned from exile on Patmos, the elderly apostle ministered in one of the world’s most significant cities until he finally died of old age.

According to early tradition, at the very end of his life John could no longer walk to the front of the congregation. So friends carried the elderly man as he sat in a chair. They placed him before the community of faith. He had just enough energy to raise his hand into the air, point his finger toward heaven, and say to the church family, “Little children, love one another.”

How will you apply his sermon today?

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