On Robin Williams, Tragedy, and Thumper’s Mommy’s Rule

Since the actor and comedian Robin Williams died two days ago, there have been a multitude of tributes aired on television networks and posted online. Mostly they extol his quick wit, his devastatingly satirical humor, and his dramatic presence onscreen. As of this writing, his death has been attributed to suicide resulting from depression, so others have used this opportunity to focus on that mental disease. Also, given that his death occurred during a time of violent conflict in the Middle East and heightened tensions with Russia, not to mention anticipation of an ideologically charged election a few months hence, other less complimentary media has blown off Mr. Williams’ suicide as insignificant compared to larger events, or characterized it as cowardly, selfish, and particularly reprehensible considering his immense wealth and prestige. This latter vein of commentary is disturbing.

I understand the motivation to pay tribute to a popular figure. Through his movies and other public appearance, Mr. Williams has influenced a lot of people–chiefly by making them laugh. Many of his jokes and one-liners have entered into our common lexicon. People admired him, I guess, because his comedy uplifted their spirits. We sympathized with his confusedly righteous entertainer in Good Morning, Vietnam, we laughed at his comically entertaining everyman in Mrs. Doubtfire, and we drew wisdom from his portrayal as a counselor in Good Will Hunting. It’s no surprise that we should be shocked by his death, at his own hands, and apparently because of the omnipresent sadness, hurt, and anger of depression. The very nature of the event–popular and widely-reported–gives us the opportunity to reflect on the role laughter, sadness, and death play in our own perception of our lives. I confess that his comedy seemed a little wacky to me, so I am (unfortunately) not as affected by his death as others. But why spit on those who do, in fact, grieve?

Demeaning his death, or the attention lavished on it, sends a clear message that any grief felt for it is worthless. That is manifestly not true. Grief is the product of tragedy; any event which shocks us and provokes us to contemplate our own mortality, even vicariously, is tragedy. Mr. Williams’ death is one of many which happen every day, and perhaps one of the least gruesome. Certainly he did not die due to indiscriminate rocket fire, or beheading for being something other than a Muslim. The fate of nation-states does not hang in the balance because of his suicide. But his death is no less tragic for seeming lack of context. Christian doctrine, to which I subscribe, teaches that every person has inherent dignity because they are intimately created, loved, and valued by God, and therefore Mr. Williams’ death, even at his own hands, and even if he is rich and famous, is objectively a diminution of all of us–equally so as the death of a non-Christian in Iraq, or a Palestinian in Gaza, or a Ukrainian Soldier. The loss of a life is certainly much worse than a disliked piece of legislation or an unfavorable election result. As to his depression, I’ll be the first to agree that there are more immediately threatening issues than depression before us–but the relative importance, for whatever reason, of other issues does not diminish the cause of eradicating or mitigating depression (or any other mental illness). I personally grieve for Mr. Williams, more so because I have known his contributions to our culture and laughed with him. That makes the tragedy of his death more present to me than the death of others, and so it has a greater impact on me. There’s no question that Mr. Williams’ death is a tragedy, and he–along with those who loved him, which include his family and his fans–deserves our pity and compassion by virtue of the humanity he shares with us.

The negative reactions to this event raises the question of why we sometimes disbelieve people when they tell us about themselves. I don’t mean when people boast, or curry sympathy, or otherwise seek attention–I mean when they tell us their experiences. Many people who suffer from depression have written about it, and psychologists and psychiatrists alike have documented a pattern of symptoms and results leading of this clearly defined mental disease. Apparently Mr. Williams suffered from it. It is ludicrous to contradict that diagnosis on the barest speculation, as some have done by pointing out that he was a comic, or that he was wealthy, or that he was influential. Those things, nice as they are to be, do not have relevance on mental illness any more than they do on cancer or the common cold. I won’t conjecture whether there’s a connection between comedians and depression, but I do question why some angrily reject that such mental illness can occur in certain people. Can’t they imagine anyone being depressed if they’re rich?

Whatever the reality, second-guessing the experience of others is odious. To use a well-documented issue as an example, some question whether homosexuals really experience same-sex attraction as part of their nature. Why wouldn’t we believe someone who says that about him- or herself? Unless we have a similar frame of reference–i.e. we’ve experienced same-sex attraction ourselves–then we literally cannot understand what that’s like, and cannot judge the truth or falsehood of it. Any glib, ideologically-aligned causes we propose for homosexuality are mere speculation. In rejecting that aspect about another person, we are essentially demeaning them and all who share that experience by denying them personal agency and self-knowledge. Similarly, if one does not suffer depression, then rejecting Mr. William’s mental illness or that it could cause suicide is demeaning to him and all who suffer the same disease. That’s especially true for the self-styled academics who comfortably theorize that suicide is a selfish act and (if they’re religious) a sin. While the experiences of those afflicted with depression attest to both a physical aspect (i.e. a physical defect in the brain, or the operation of the brain) and a mental/spiritual element, scientists and theologians both admit they are very far from understanding the human mind. Therefore commentary on whether Mr. Williams’ suicide was a poor choice or an inevitable result of the disease is only more speculation. On top of that, who among us could say he or she knew Mr. Williams’ conscience, which seems more the point? God alone knows that. And finally, anecdotal evidence about someone falsely claiming depression–or any other sort of identity–in order to get attention is absolutely not sufficient reason to lack compassion. Any number of people who play the martyr by claiming depression, or who whine about the pressures of a life of fame, do not diminish the real thing. The only creditable source about Mr. Williams’ depression is Mr. Williams himself, and those who were close to him. It seems logical we would trust them.

No doubt those profess themselves offended by this suicide, or by all the attention spent on it, will respond to this post (if they read it) by asserting their right to believe and whatever they want. I don’t contradict that right. For my part, I’m certainly aware that I’m a poor source for information: I have no first-hand knowledge of Mr. Williams, nor could I improve upon the tributes written about him by better writers than I. I only remind the participants in this discussion that Mr. Williams had humanity and therefore dignity, as do all those saddened by his death. For that alone he and they are worthy of consideration and compassion. So please remember the rule of Thumper’s Mommy in Disney’s Bambi: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all–and leave those who grieve Mr. Williams’ death and reflect on their own mortality in respectful peace.

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Aurora, Santa Barbara, and Waseca as an invitation to reflect

Last night my wife’s friend joined a news show panel a big TV network, so of course we tuned in to “cheer her on” through the screen. The subject was John LaDue, the upper-middle-class, never-been-bullied, no-reason-to-ever-go-wrong, almost-perpetrator of yet another violent, tragic school shooting.

He, of course, is only the latest in a line of demographically similar young men who have, for reasons yet under debate, become violent. The Aurora shootings shocked us because the location and event seemed vaguely symbolic: a movie theater, at the premier of a much-anticipated movie claiming to delve into the darkness of the human soul. The Santa Barbara killings angered us because the killer wrote elaborate fantasies about being violent, especially toward the women who unfairly denied him sex and the men who received in his stead. John LaDue’s planned violence stands out because the police stopped it–and because his matter-of-fact assertion that he felt mentally ill, that he wanted to kill his peers and hold out until taken down by SWAT, is a chilling glimpse into psychopathy.

The talking heads of the panel were all very unsympathetic towards young Mr. LaDue. The talked about how he was “simply evil,” “beyond rehabilitation” and the like, while the host sagely agreed. They may be right, of course, though I hesitate on principle to presume what someone might do out of respect for certain legal protections on which the United States are founded, but by and large I agree with them: Mr. LaDue ought to be charged with all the crimes associated with planning such a terrible deed (conspiracy to commit murder comes to mind).

It was interesting that they referred to previous, similar crimes–which actually took place–almost as aggravating circumstances. As if the fact that similar spree killings in the recent past somehow made his planned attack worse. It might just have been a trick of phrase; I’m fairly sure the commentators simply wanted to draw attention tangentially to this mystery of young men, from what we collectively consider to be “good” homes, who slowly and without concealment develop a rage and desire to kill, and then execute that desire despite a host of teachers, counselors, and peers who warn against them. I think it’s wonderful that the police caught Mr. LaDue, and if that was the result of a greater awareness of such crimes, then bravo to the talking heads. But the whole exercise in condemnation seemed to be dodging the main issue.

I suppose it’s natural to vent frustration on Mr. LaDue. He did, after all, plan to murder as many of his classmates as he could and (he hoped) some cops sent after him as well. And as a large portion of spree killers end up dead by their own hand, it’s satisfying to finally have someone to punish–especially if he is a better receptacle of our anger than James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora Theater shooter, who presented convincingly as a complete psychopath, and who showed all amusement and no remorse for the court proceedings against him.

Yet I wonder how much of the anger directed at people like Mr. LaDue and Mr. Holmes is to assuage our own consciences. I wonder how much of the condemnation and indignation, however superficially righteous, serves to draw a distinction between us and them; to say in essence, “the spree killer is evil and I am not, therefore get him away from me into jail and then death.” Perhaps shock and anger sometimes mask the relief people feel that they know what is “bad” when they see these spree killers, and it is not them. Perhaps too much of the talk about such men–easy laments about the decline of our society, titillated surprise that the scions of upper-middle-class stability, satisfying outrage at expressions of psychopathy and misogyny–is disassociation.

This bears some discussion. After all, the young men in question grew up among us. They received the same stimuli from media and from our pervasive culture as we have, and they had all the material things they needed. Clutching our pearls and wondering in bemusement how such criminals and terrible crimes could occur is the easy way out, a safe way to avoid hard questions about our own behavior–or at least our participation in a social behavior–which may have (at least) set the stage for a spree killing. Worse is to use these events to forward a philosophical or socio-political agenda, like the opposing crusades of the NRA (which seems to want to arm all teachers) and those who advocate total gun control. It’s ludicrous to think that arming teachers or taking away all guns would somehow solve the problem. The problem isn’t the weapons or lack thereof, it’s that young men decide to spree kill and then do it. They can do it with sticks, steak knives, home-made explosives, or bows and arrows. The problem is that they do it, and it’s our problem because in important ways the perpetrators are similar to us.

At this point I’m sure many readers have rejected this train of thought. They angrily proclaim that bad people exist, and that bad people will always exist, and that there’s absolutely no similarity between the sickoes that spree kill in schools and the rest of us law-abiding Americans. They may angrily point out that only young men have ever committed spree killings, and so it’s not a problem for women in our society. They may passionately argue that if nobody had access to guns, nobody would be able to kill so randomly. Or they may simply brindle at the suggestion that they are anything like the monsters that kill, and decide they don’t really want to discuss it any further. But if so, these readers are taking the easy way out. They are disassociating. They are saying that the problem of spree killing is not their problem, because spree killers are wholly alien. They would rather be right, ultimately, than make the sacrifice of compassion to see if there is any way such killers could be reduced.

Nearly every recent spree killer has come from the same demographic makes a mockery of coincidence. Nearly every spree killer has come from, and targeted, the influential middle class. Nearly every spree killer has evinced rage, most notably the Santa Barbara killer who (horrifyingly) seemed to actually believe that mere fact of others having sexual relationships was a violation of his rights. And nearly every spree killer seems to want attention–they choose schools and movie theaters and prominent universities as their tableau, knowing that they will earn headlines and time on “The Situation Room” and endless panels of talking heads like the one I saw last night.

That, actually, may hold the key to the problem. Attention. Why do spree killers want attention? Attributing it to their generation, as many do, is doubtful–otherwise more entitled millennials (in full disclosure, I’m a millennial too) would turn to violence. No, I would guess that spree killers want attention for the same reason that normal people develop a need for attention: some kind of fundamental, developmental neglect.

Now before people break out the mocking tears and sneer about mommies and daddies not loving their children enough, consider: first, numerous studies have shown that young girls without a close relationship to their parents are statistically more like to engage in promiscuity, drug use, and other risky behaviors; and second, studies into gang membership/affiliation (male and female) cite lack of dedicated parents as a prime causal. It’s not about whining on a daytime talk show, it has been studied and proved that neglected children have a higher propensity towards clinically anti-social behavior. And I have unfortunately met too many middle-class or wealthy parents who are more interested in the next vacation destination, or the new episodes of Mad Men, or in their own jobs, than in their children. Though it looks like stay-at-home-parenting is on the rise, the teenagers and young adults of today are perhaps the generation most commonly dumped into daycare so that parents could have satisfying careers and social lives.

Where it comes to males in all of this, to young men, is a sort of generalized neglect. Wait, hear me out. I know that across the board, women make less than men for similar work. I know that there exists an insidious “motherhood” penalty in the workplace. I think that as the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us has grown, life across that gap on the wealthy side has preserved and protected the old male-dominated social architecture. But back here, in real life, important changes are taking place: compared to men, women collectively get better grades in school, participate in more extracurricular activities (including sports), attend college at higher rates, and in many cases are more readily hired. These are all very good things, and hopefully a harbinger of true equality in the workplace.

Other investigative journalism indicates, however, that laudable attempts to push women to higher social achievements have unintentionally marginalized men. “Socially acceptable” extracurriculars in high school have shrunk to a few high-profile sports in order to spend equally on women’s teams. Universities faced with a majority of female students have invested money in programs of study and student life infrastructure which cater specifically to women. Companies hoping to achieve a certain diversity actively pursue female employees. And I wonder if maybe developmental authority figures like teachers have become mostly female, and less interested (understandably) in focusing on traditionally male interests like war. None of this is to blame the system, but rather to suggest that the intersection of parental neglect and social neglect may be a place frighteningly devoid of normal social obstacles to psychopathy, narcissism, and spree killing.

Obviously not all neglected children turn to violence. And women almost never turn to violence, perhaps because they usually have less aggression due to lower testosterone (though there are exceptions, of course). But I think it no accident that most spree killers commit their deed(s) after puberty, and they all seem to be seeking attention and revenge. Attention, maybe because they never got it; revenge, likely against those who refused to pay attention to them (or suitable surrogates). And I also think it telling that spree killers are usually characterized as loners, and notably lack the comfort and restraint of a social group–a family or a team–to draw them towards good social relationships. Maybe they aren’t necessarily born loners, but possibly are made loners by their development. I wonder if the anger and hatred that many women sense, in catcalls (check out #NotJustHello on twitter) and sexual dominance (#YesAllWomen), isn’t rooted in this cauldron of socially marginalized young men. And I wonder whether a parent, a mentor, a teacher, a friend who cared about [insert name of spree killer] might not have made the difference.

I don’t advocate sympathy for any spree killer. It is for the good of society that they be charged and punished to the full extent of the law. I also don’t advocate some kind of large-scale enterprise or campaign to remedy social wrongs. I suspect that by the time spree killers start exhibiting the signs (posting YouTube rants, rage-filled blogs, and so on) it’s too late for intervention and time for police involvement. But I invite us all to not wring our hands, spit out righteous rhetoric, and go about our daily business, comfortably believing these events have nothing to do with us. I invite us to take the hard road and try to see the killers with compassion, and hopefully to see a way that we can, in the future, make a difference.

Wetness, Coldness, War, and the M240G

When you go into the field here at TBS (and I assume anywhere else in the Marine Corps), you must reconstruct time and reality. It is a monumental task. Over the past week, my company conducted FEX III, the most war-like of our evolutions. I slept only 14 hours over the entire week. Like any experience of suffering and privation, a FEX exposes one’s character in a way that all the little luxuries of society (like beds and showers) can prevent. Since part of the learning experience of a FEX is experiencing the kind of privation that happens in combat situations, there is no extra time built in for personal needs; for example, we must eat when we can and often go without food.

What makes all this especially demanding is the fuzzy thinking of food and sleep deprivation, considering that everything about the FEX requires focus and discipline–the long midnight security watches, the planning of attacks, or the act of sneaking up on enemy positions for reconnaissance.

We spent four full days in the field, plus a morning dedicated to leaving. Monday we were helicoptered in and set up a defense, which we maintained until Wednesday morning. On Wednesday, we conducted a grueling Movement to Contact, a platoon daylight attack, and a night ambush. On Thursday, we conducted a night attack. Every night we manned LP/OPs (Listening Post/Observation Posts), stood Radio Watch, and kept a Marine posted on every Squad Automatic Weapon for security. In the daytime we conducted security patrols, reconnaissance patrols, and held strong points. We engaged in combat with our peers, captured POWs, and suffered casualties.

Although the first day was clear, the rest of the week proceeded under steady rain and steadily increasing cold. We slept in wet sleeping bags (when we had time), we woke up frigid at all hours in wet clothes, we lay prone in ice-cold water, we sat in chest-deep fighting positions that slowly filled with mud. I cannot remember being warm, although many times I achieved a sort of comfort simply by moving around. Yet for all the misery (or maybe because of it), our unit camaraderie increased.

This week, I pushed far beyond my previous limits physically, emotionally, mentally, and morally (by morally I mean ‘in matters concerning my will and morale’). Despite the cold and wet, I am proud to say that my platoon and I went about our business in a more professional manner than we ever had before. During the movement to contact, which is a method of clearing terrain of the enemy, we hiked through thick woodland at a fast pace with full load (70-100 lbs) on our backs, diverting units as needed to engage whatever enemy we encountered. It requires discipline to drop packs in precise order under fire, to engage the enemy with aggression, and then quickly retrieve the packs and run to rejoin the formation. It requires personal discipline to know   your job exactly each time an engagement occurs. And it requires discipline to continue onward when you’re cold, wet, tired, and hungry. But we did it. During the night attack, my squad and I crept to within 60 meters of enemy entrenchments without being detected, achieved surprise, and suppressed them with fire so our comrades could assault through. During the night ambush, we took down an order in driving rain, crept through dense underbrush in 0% illumination without the aid of lights or NVGs, ambushed a convoy, raided the trucks, and transported our spoils back in the same manner, and even resisted a counterattack by the enemy. Sitting at my desk, writing, I find it hard to believe that I and the platoon could have accomplished so much, even with the memory of all those events so fresh.

It is thrilling that we did it–we accomplished the mission, in spite of physical hardship. And that is the greatest feeling in the world. My captain once told our platoon, “mental and physical toughness will take you a long way,” and he was right. It was the mental and physical toughness of my platoon that enabled us to perform our jobs despite the poor conditions and our thinking enemy. Truthfully, every single one of us was discouraged and thought of quitting at one point during the week. But we covered for each other, and inspired each other, and sometimes had to kick each other in the ass to get moving. We were greater than the sum of our parts, and that sustained us. That made suffering seem incidental, except as an excuse to complain. And it made me feel truly like a Marine for the first time.

A few characteristically reflective moments stand out for me, the first being the helicopter ride in. The helicopter is an amazing machine. When you get in, and the engines wind up, it feels like there is no way the rotor can lift the aircraft. You seem to hear each individual rotor blade hitting the air as the aircraft struggles to lift off. But in the air, it is different – we made some turns so sharply that I could literally look straight down to the earth through the windows on the opposite side of the fuselage from where I was seated. Exhilarating? Absolutely.

Another such moment, oddly, was firing the machine gun. I may have mentioned already that I carried the M240G medium machine gun through the night attack, which included about 3 km of hiking to various control points (again, through dense forest), 1600 meters of creeping through woodland in the dark to get in position, and one glorious minute of firing. In fact, though I hated the M240G as a burden, it fires so beautifully that I forgave it everything during the attack. I felt in that moment like I would never love a woman as much as I loved that weapon. It’s 7.62mm (.30 calibre) high-powered rifle rounds make a lot more noise than the smaller caliber M16 and SAWs (5.56mm/.2229 cal). It has a higher rate of fire and great reliability. I felt like Rambo. It was wonderful: the first burst I fired was supposed to be 6-8 rounds, but it ended up being closer to 20, because it felt so good to be pulling the trigger. I don’t think I will ever forget the sight of that machine gun eating its chain of ammunition, or the feel of its buttstock slamming my shoulder, or the brightness of its muzzle flashes. It was (and I don’t use this word lightly) terribly beautiful.

But now, it is all a pleasant memory. I am stuffed with food and enjoying the inordinate warmth of my barracks room. My dry rack is calling. And so I will finish wallowing in the excitement of a successful exercise and dream of it instead. Somehow, the memory of completing a tough job (or jobs), and doing so well, makes ‘home’ all that much better.