On Plain Language and the Death of Robin Williams

Full disclosure: I have clinical depression. The beast came upon me shortly after puberty; medication is the only thing that keeps me well. That said, I have learned to live with my illness the way anyone who has a chronic illness does. Depression is no welcome guest, but these days, it is less foe than fellow traveler. For that, I am grateful.

Others, like Robin Williams, are not so lucky. His death broke my heart. Who could have predicted this?

Events like this ignite the Internet. People tweet; people Like stuff on Facebook; people blog. And then, as the initial howls of disbelief recede into a pensive silence, people opine.

I hate this part.

Why? Because when I read these opinions, I am reacquainted with the breadth of ignorance on topics like depression. And plain language.

Here’s an example. The day after Robin Williams died, a religious man who blogs about the Christian faith–quite well, most of the time–wrote a post called “To Be Happy.” Here’s a paragraph from his post.

“By now we should understand that there are those who seek to find their own happiness in the happiness of others.  The comics among us have so often been tragic characters.  Perhaps they think that if they can make us laugh, they will find joy for themselves.  I won’t pretend to know Robin Williams or understand his demons, but I know that seeking health by making others laugh is a losing proposition.”

I could only sigh. When it comes to the topic of faith and mental illness, my fellow Christians often brandish an ignorance that astounds me.

I commented on the post. I said that depression is not the result of seeking health in the happiness of others any more than cancer is the result of thinking about cigarettes. I wrote that “…Robin Williams’ amazing life ended not because he tried to find his own happiness in making others happy….His life ended because he lost the battle with a debilitating disease.” In other words, I said, “Depression is not a failure to find happiness, but the inability, through no fault of your own, to feel the joy in the happiness you’ve found.”

Other people commented on my post. The blogger did, too. We lapped the usual milestones. Is depression really an illness? (Yes, I said.) Is its cause chemical or environmental? (Either, and often both, I explained.) Does it come on because the victim is doing something wrong, as the blogger’s post had implied about Robin Williams? (No way, I said.) Finally, someone pointed out that the blogger had written, “I won’t pretend to know Robin Williams or understand his demons,” so how could I criticize him for tying the topic of his post to Robin Williams’ death?

(Here’s where plain language shows up.) Because he did so by implication. He used Robin Williams’ suicide as a springboard for his topic. He claimed by word choice his authority on suicide and depression and the causes behind them. Using simple syntax –“I won’t pretend to know…but…”–a writer sends forth his real message under cover of false humility. (“I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to be overweight, but I’ve written an entire blog post about it anyway.” “I won’t pretend to know why people use guns, but here are my Deep Thoughts on the subject just the same.”) The old adage (and plain-language principle) “Say what you mean, and mean what you say” hovers in the air, cringing.

I pointed this out. The blogger said I shouldn’t put words in his mouth and shut down the conversation. Perhaps he’d realized that he had staked out territory he was unprepared to defend.

I’m not in this world to hurt people. I humbled myself and posted an apology on his blog. I said I was sorry that I was harsh (which I was), and that I wished him well (because I do).  He has not replied, but that’s okay; Because whether he accepts my apology or not, I meant it—and everything I said before it.

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