On Robin Williams, suicide and suffering alone

Rabbi James Stone Goodman leads Congregation Neve Shalom, a member of the Network of Jewish Renewal Communities.

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

In the group I lead on Thursday nights, Shalvah (Hebrew for “serenity”) outreach on addictions, we are familiar with the subject of suicide. Whenever it comes up, it tends to take over the meeting. 

The meeting is basically a teaching and a sharing, support in the simple sense that we show up for each other. We listen, we understand, we are understood. We get why we need each other. Also true: We need each other because we get each other. The first thing we learn in the group is to listen. From there we come to understand – to know and to be known – each other, and that may be the most important element of our success.

We teach wisdom from the Jewish tradition, as well as wisdom from the 12-step anonymous model; we are a bridge between the two worlds. Not all of our members are Jews, but all are dealing with addiction in one form or another, and everyone understands the danger of the kind of pain that leads to suicide.

I feel the proximity of laughter and tears at our meetings; they are right next to each other at our table of human responses to the challenges of living. Tears are sitting in one seat at the table. Right next to tears is laughter, and the distinction between the two is subtle. You might think you’re sitting in the tears spot and, a moment later, you’re cracking up and you realize you are in the next seat, laughing. We are alternately serious and silly, sometimes at the same time, one eye laughing, one eye crying.

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Every suicide is a trigger for the discussion of the group, a kind of wrinkle in the cosmic order for all, because everyone around the table has stood at the crossroads of life and death and every person at the table has chosen life. And we all know people who have chosen otherwise. We know that the descent into drug or alcohol abuse is a trip toward death.

But taking one’s own life is always a challenge, the breath of the beast rarely if ever that far behind us that we are immune. Everyone at the table, no matter how much sobriety a person has, is vigilant. Daily. We call it a daily reprieve. 

I suppose it’s well known that drugs and alcohol were part of Robin Williams’ story, depression was part of his story, and celebrity was part of his story. Depression is present in almost all addiction, and celebrity is an added obstacle to working oneself well. 

I didn’t know him, but I knew him. I bet his interior was painfully soft and vulnerable, sometimes hidden and unknown. I look at his sweet face and I see his soul, in the relational sense our holy language preserves panim (face) bifnim (inside) – same root.

Our group has heart for the stranger because we are all strangers. We do not judge. We show up for each other. I really don’t know what was in that poor man’s heart, but I do believe he died alone. At the moment before it became irreversible, he didn’t call someone. His beloveds will suffer from that for a long time. 

We don’t have an antidote. We have a program. We have each other. Yes, I think lives are saved around our table, but we have no certainty. We have the group. We do not practice aloneness, and we talk about a higher power. It’s a spiritual thing, not a religious thing. We have a daily reprieve based on our spiritual condition. We have today, and that becomes enough.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman  of Congregation Neve Shalom directs the Shalvah Program: Outreach on Addictions. For more information, visit  neveshalom.org.