I miss Robin Williams.
To be honest, I usually get sort of annoyed about the media coverage surrounding celebrity deaths. With so much tragedy and heartbreak in the world, it always seems a bit unfair that we get so focused on the death of someone just because they’ve been in movies; and I always wonder how the families and friends of famous folks feel about all of the attention paid to them during such a personal, painful time.
But Robin Williams. I grew up with Robin Williams. He was the genie in Aladdin; he was Mrs. Doubtfire; he was O captain, my captain. Mr. Williams made a lot, a lot, a lot of people laugh; and he made quite a few of us cry, too. And I have to admit that when I heard that he had died, and that it was likely he had killed himself, I had the same reaction that a lot of other folks had: “How could someone who made so many people happy be in so much pain?”
Of course, speculations flew, and there was a lot of talk about Mr. Williams’ past struggles with drug use, health problems, and depression.
It’s important for me to say, before I go on, that we don’t actually know whether Mr. Williams had a diagnosis of depression or of bipolar disorder, and honestly maybe it’s none of our business. But for folks who do have such a diagnosis, Williams’ self-description of his emotional swings, the intensity of his highs and his lows, sound very, very familiar. How can someone who made so many people happy, who seemed to be such a bright light, be in so much pain?
As it turns out, it’s awfully, awfully common. There is a type of anguish, a type of suffering that lurks in the wings of some of our personal theaters, immune to lights or to applause. There is a type of pain that is able to live on in the daylight.
It’s often very, very difficult for people to talk about a pain like that. The church has, unfortunately, played no small role in the creation of the kind of societal stigma that makes mental health challenges particularly hard for people to share about. The journalist Andrew Solomon writes, quite bluntly, that “The rise of Christianity was highly disadvantageous to depressives.”[i] The church often equated mental illness with demon possession and thus with sin, moral failing, or a lack of faith. In the Middle Ages, theologians and church authorities used the expression, “the noonday demon,” to refer to the phenomenon we might call depression. Their solution? Manual labor, isolation, or intensified ascetic practice.[ii]
The phrase, “noonday demon,” comes from the Latin translation of the Psalm we heard read tonight. In the Common English translation we heard the Psalmist say: “Don’t be afraid of terrors at night, arrows that fly in daylight, or sickness that prowls in the dark, destruction that ravages at noontime.” In the Latin Vulgate translation, that last line is “daemonio meridiano.” According to Andrew Solomon, church authors seized on the phrase to describe: “the thing that you can see clearly in the brightest part of the day but that nonetheless comes to wrench your soul away from God.”[iii]
Solomon’s book on the topic of depression is called The Noonday Demon. He explains why:
I have taken the phrase as the title of this book because it describes so exactly what one experiences in depression. The image serves to conjure the terrible feeling of invasion that attends the depressive’s plight. There is something brazen about depression. Most demons – most forms of anguish – rely on the cover of night; to seem them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun, unchallenged by recognition. You can know all the why and the wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded by ignorance.[iv]
I wonder if any of this sounds familiar to you, either from firsthand experience or from the accounts of someone close to your heart. A recent annual survey by the American College Health Association reported that 30% of college students have felt “’so depressed that it was difficult to function’ at some time over the past year.”[v] The Mayo Clinic now has a section on its website dedicated specifically to college depression.[vi] The number of students seeking counseling for "severe" psychological problems jumped from 16 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2012; the percentage of students who report suicidal thoughts has risen along with it.[vii] And according to Emory University, 1 in 10 college students have made a plan for suicide during their undergrad years. Emory reports that there are about 1,000 suicides on college campuses across the country in a given year.[viii] College students – students such as you – are, it seems, no strangers to the noonday demon.
And if that’s the case – if the noonday demon, the sort of personal darkness that seems immune to even the brightest of lights, stalks its way across our campus – then we, as a community of faith, need some sort of way to confront it.
As I said before, the way that the church has tended to deal with mental illness and anguish in the past has been to ignore or to stigmatize it, to associate it with demon possession or laziness or personal sin. So part of what’s required is for us to roll back that stigma, to bring what has been hidden in the shadows out into the light. Just having a conversation about mental illness, just naming it as something that can be talked about, helps.
But if the thing we’re talking about is capable of doing its damage, even in the light, then more is needed. What do we do? What do we say, when people we know – the people on our hallways or in our classrooms or in our worship services – seem to be drowning?
Early on in the first three gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, Jesus is baptized by John. And we are told that the skies open up and that the voice of God declares Jesus to be beloved of God. Can you imagine that kind of assurance – a voice from heaven saying that you are loved, that you are valued and cared for and accepted?
And in each and every one of those stories, Jesus immediately finds himself in a wilderness, hungry, alone, and haunted by a demon who is immune to daylight.
Jesus, we are told, was tempted by the devil. And in Matthew and Luke, where we are given some details about this temptation, the devil appears quoting the Psalm that we heard tonight, Psalm 91. Matthew’s gospel, for examples, tells us: “The devil brought Jesus into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written –and he quotes the psalm – I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” Jesus’ tempter says, “Have faith, Jesus. If you’re so high, so beloved – if you’re here, literally at such a high point, at the pinnacle of this holy place, go ahead and throw yourself down.”
I don’t think that the devil makes people kill themselves. I don’t think mental illness is caused by literal demon possession. But it sure does sound familiar to me – a voice that can come to you even when you’ve just been told how loved you are, that can make you feel lonely and isolated, make you doubt your mission and your passion and your identity. It might not have horns and a tail and a pitchfork, but that voice is very real.
What is notable about the story, I think, when it comes to how we relate to those in our lives who are wrestling with the noonday demon, is that the devil shows up to test Jesus’ faith, and what Jesus says is in response is, “Don’t put God to the test.” A test, as it turns out, is not what people need when they’re feeling alone in wilderness places. They don’t need a test of faith. They don’t need to be told that if they just tried harder or just prayed harder or just thought more positively that they would feel better. They don’t need judgment. They need acceptance. Friendship. Companionship.
John Swinton is a theologian who also works as a community health chaplain in Scotland. He writes of the importance of friendship in reclaiming the personhood of those struggling with mental illness: “Unlike many agents with whom people with mental health problems may come into contact, the task of the Christlike friend is not to do anything for them, but rather to be someone for them—someone who understands and accepts them as a person; someone who is with and for them in the way that God is also with and for them; someone who reveals the nature of God and the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ in a form that is tangible, accessible, and deeply powerful.”[ix]
Ultimately, what the psalm we read tonight witnesses to is a God who is with and for us. And so we, too, are called to be with and to be for those who are suffering. Perhaps someone you know, or perhaps you, are feeling the pressure of always having to be on, always having to be up, when they or you are really feeling the sort of anguish that seems immune to even the brightest light. And there are many, many resources on this campus and in the wider community that can help. But it starts with a simple commitment, for each of us as individuals and for this community, to reach out to those who are grappling with the noonday demon. To be with them. To be for them. To be friends.
[i] Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 292.
[ii] Ibid., 292-293.
[iii] Ibid., 293.
[ix] John Swinton, Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People With Mental Health Problems (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 143.