The tragic suicide of Academy award winning actor and comedian Robin Williams has shocked the entertainment world. Suffering from depression caused by among several things a relapse into substance abuse, he reportedly ended his life first abortively with a knife and then finally with a belt.
That depression can afflict anyone, even the wealthy and the famous, is well known. After all, in America, despite its first world prosperity, anti-depressants are the third largest prescription drugs. Yet the fact that depression afflicted fatally a comedian is sobering. If forces us to contemplate the difference between humor and happiness.
Normally because comedians make us laugh, we tend to think of them as happy people. Those who are sources of such joy would be themselves joyful, wouldn’t they?
Not necessarily. Because humor is just like any other ability that is endowed by nature and enhanced by practice. Being good at humor is like being good at any other cerebral ability such as mathematics or writing. Or, to underscore the difference between abilities and happiness, let’s consider largely physical skills such as skating or singing. Those with such skills can dazzle us by their performances. Yet we intuitively know that a good singer is not necessarily a happy person – happiness is a different ball game. While the difference between the ability to sing and the ability to be happy is easily discerned, the difference between the ability to be humorous and the ability to be happy can be easily missed.
Emphasizing the difference between humor and happiness is not meant to give humor a bad press. No doubt, humor can bring spice to a life that is dry and demanding. Most of us could do with more doses of humor in our ultra-fast, stress-filled lives. The many popular comedy shows and columns do serve a human need to lighten life’s burdens with humor.
Yet might our culture be over-rating humor?
The humor column in the Readers Digest claims through its title, “Laughter is the best medicine.”
Is it, really?
Evidently, it was not a good enough medicine to cure a comedian of fatal depression.
Further, the very fact that laughter is marketed as a medicine points to some underlying malady, some inner emptiness. When there’s inner emptiness, humor can be a mask to hide the absence of happiness. Far from being a medicine for the heart, it becomes a painkiller that hides the hole in the heart.
It is a telling commentary on the state of popular culture that one of its quintessential icons – an exemplar of ability and prosperity and popularity – had to fight against depression for decades, and ended up disastrously losing the fight.
The materialistic popular culture seduces us with promises of worldly pleasures. Being enamored, we crave and slave to make our way to the top of the ladder of success. The struggle itself can be draining. If we manage to be among the few who do get to the top, we find the achievement to be unbelievably anti-climactic. The high of being high up is agonizingly short-lived. The euphoria dies all too soon, the charm of newness fades and the glamorous becomes monotonous. John Ruskin put it well, “Every increased possession loads us with new weariness.”
When we are troubled either by emptiness after achieving the material things we aimed for or, more commonly, by frustration due to not achieving them, what does the culture offer us for relief?
Prominently addictive indulgences.
The culture impels us to drown our miseries in tobacco, alcohol or drugs with the promise of instant relief. The relief ends quickly, but the hold of those indulgences on us doesn’t; rather, it tightens with repeated indulgences till it becomes an addiction. The escape-ways often turn out to be trap-ways. What was touted as a source of relief from misery itself becomes a source of misery – and often a much greater misery.
Why greater misery?
Because this misery is almost entirely self-inflicted – we knowingly and willingly fall for indulgences that are known to be addictive.
As we fall for self-destructive addictions, our self-esteem falls too. We can’t digest the reality that we didn’t have the intelligence to see through the deception of the addiction. And we find even more mortifying the reality that we lack the self-mastery to break free. Our plummeting self-esteem drags us down into the dark ditches of depression.
No doubt, depression is sometimes a medical condition that needs appropriate treatment. Drugs like Prozac have had some success, but it’s been limited and uneven. Doctor-author Siddhartha Mukherjee points to the limitations of neurological treatments in an essay titled Post Prozac Nation in New York Times: “We can only mix chemicals and spark electrical circuits and hope, indirectly, to understand the brain’s structure and function through their effects.”
The indirect approach is necessitated because emotions and their foundation, consciousness, are beyond the reach of the material methodology. Consciousness is a dimension of our inner life that is essentially non-material. As Nobel Laureate neurophysiologist John Eccles put it, “The brain is the messenger to consciousness.”
Reducing depression to neurobiology is as superficial and misleading as reducing happiness to humor. In a broader sense, reducing consciousness to chemistry is like missing the driver for the car. The brain is not me; it is a vehicle for the real me, the soul, who is the source of the consciousness that activates the brain’s chemistry.
That’s why waiting for some future magic drug as a cure for depression is tragically shortsighted. After all, millions of people have lived for millennia without those drugs – and without depression. While accounts of melancholia and similar emotions can be found even in ancient times, they were hardly ever as prevalent as they are today, a condition that caregivers call an epidemic of mental illness.
What is it that makes people in our age so vulnerable to depression?
The reasons can be many, but one fundamental, often overlooked, reason is the increasing erosion of a sense of purpose and meaning in life.
The materialism that holds much of our culture in its stranglehold refuses to admit any non-material purpose or meaning to life. But where does that leave achievers who find life’s material pleasures unfulfilling? And what about the many more who can’t achieve those pleasures?
It leaves them frustrated and depressed, going through the motions in a life increasingly stripped of meaning and purpose.
Dr Viktor Frankyl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning explains how the sense of purpose and meaning are essential for not just happy living, but for living itself. While chronicling the atrocities in the concentration camps at Auschwitz, he reports how the inmates who couldn’t find any meaning or purpose to their sufferings succumbed much earlier than their biological capacity to endure. In contrast, those who could find meaning and purpose were able to survive much longer and eventually emerged stronger through their harrowing experiences.
While we may all try to impart some subjective meaning and purpose to our individual lives, is there any objective meaning and purpose to life itself?
The spiritual wisdom-traditions of the world assert that there is indeed. The ultimate purpose is love – lasting, fulfilling spiritual love for God and all living beings in relationship with him. When we use our abilities to lovingly harmonize with him, we find the highest satisfaction and do the ultimate good for others. The various theistic traditions of the world are essentially meant for providing support systems for harmonizing with the divine.
Modern science is increasingly vindicating the benefits of such harmonization, especially how it protects people from problems like depression and suicide. The authoritative Handbook of Religion and Health published by Oxford University that compiled the findings of two thousand published studies from various parts of the world concluded that people across all ages, walks and educational levels benefitted mentally and physically by religious practice. Germane to our discussion is the finding that religious people suffered much lesser from depression and suicidal urges than their non-religious peers.
Of course, religion is not just a matter of nominal affiliation but of higher realization and inner transformation. For such realization and transformation, the Vedic wisdom-tradition of ancient India provides profound philosophy and empowering yogic methodology. The Bhagavad-gita, a philosophical classic in the Vedic tradition, explains that we are at our core souls. We are meant to find enrichment and fulfillment in life at the spiritual level, in relationship with the Supreme who is the reservoir of beauty and joy.
Yogic meditation connects us with the power of the Supreme, thus empowering us to regulate our impulses and moods. If we probe inside with the torchlight provided by yogic practice, we will find a goldmine of wisdom that will animate our life with the ultimate meaning and purpose. In such spiritual animation lies the ultimate cure to depression and addiction. Indeed, thousands of people the world over have already found freedom and fulfillment – and many more are finding it as they experience the empowerment of yoga.
The Srimad Bhagavatam, a devotional classic within the Vedic library, describes its own genesis through the narrative of Vyasadeva, the sage who authored a phenomenal canon of scriptural works. He was a literary super-star. Despite his ability and productivity, he felt inexplicably incomplete.
To gain relief, what did he do?
He turned inward and upward: inward to introspect, and upward to consult his spiritual master, the celestial sage Narada. Both introspection and instruction led him to the same conclusion: he hadn’t used his talents for their ultimate purpose – glorifying the Supreme. He rectified that anomaly by profusely and purely glorifying the Lord in what became his magnum opus, the Srimad Bhagavatam.
By similarly looking inwards and upwards, we can all find greater meaning, higher purpose and richer fulfillment.
There’s nothing wrong with outer achievement as long as it doesn’t become a substitute for inner fulfilment. There’s nothing wrong with Prozac as long as we don’t let rigid materialism make our life utterly prosaic. There’s nothing wrong with laughter as long as that’s not all that we are after; when we put the pursuit of a meaningful and purposeful life first, then the laughter within such a life will be enduring.
Without such meaning and purpose, the laughter on-screen or off-screen is just a show. There’s life after that laughter, for not just the spectators but also the actors. And that life is not as rosy as is often imagined. The media doesn’t usually show that unflattering picture. When tragedy forces it into the public eye, it’s up to us to see it and to learn from it.
As we pray for the departed soul of Robbin Williams and offer our condolences to the bereaved, maybe it is time to seek deeper, spiritual meaning and purpose in our own lives too.
Jun 25, 2022
Radhapriya Chawla, ISKCON Toronto Communications