Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What Robin Williams's Death Tells Us about Life

Yesterday, many of us walked in and sat down to watch or scroll through the news of the day. In the midst of the chaos in Iraq and the shooting death of Michael Brown, the press revealed the fact that beloved comedic actor Robin Williams had taken his own life at his Northern California home at the age 63. Commentators were quick to laud Williams's professional achievements and also to mention his issues with substance abuse and depression. Robin Williams possessed a unique blend of physical humor and biting wit - always quick to laugh at you, but also at ease enough to laugh at himself. We remember Williams as a funny man, but some of his best performances occurred in films such as Good Will Hunting (for which he won an Academy Award), Dead Poets Society, and What Dreams May Come in all of which he played serious characters. Williams's canon is diverse and deep just as Williams the man was. There is more to most people than what meets the eye, and Robin Williams was no exception.
So what, if anything, can we learn from the untimely death of this talented man?
I believe that anytime a person, regardless of his/her level of fame or notoriety, takes his/her own life, it should cause the rest of us to stop and reflect on our own existence. This is perhaps even more the case when a person that appears to have boundless success and incredible talent dies by suicide. If we are honest, we must admit that no one else can know the depths of pain and hardship that another human being experiences. For a person battling life-threatening depression, all the praise and honor bestowed on him/her by others rings hollow. A person who seems buoyant and positive on the outside may still grappling with demons and darkness beyond description. The voice of a loved one or professional saying, "I understand" or "I care" can still fail to penetrate the layers of self-hatred and sadness that have entombed the sufferer's mind. I don't pretend to understand the series of events and emotions that led Robin Williams to take his own life, but can say that having experienced a similar darkness, I empathize with him deeply.
1 in 4 Americans is living with a diagnosable mental illness at any given time. Millions of our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow church members, our children, and strangers we encounter every day are suffering in silence. It is not a question of if you know someone living with mental illness; it is a question of who you know that is living with mental illness. Mental illness knows no race, no class, no creed, no level of celebrity. It damages and sometimes destroys lives indiscriminately. All the money or fame or power in the world cannot protect a person from its reach. While access to better care can make a lifesaving difference, sometimes even the best care is not enough.
If I had spent a few minutes with Robin Williams in recent days, I would have done what any fan would have. I would have talked about how he inspired me to pursue a degree in English from his performance in Dead Poets Society, how he made me laugh in Mrs. Doubtfire, how he made me think about love in a different way with his performance in What Dreams May Come. And perhaps Williams would have smiled or laughed or told an off-color joke, but I don't think he would have said much. His thoughts were elsewhere. No doubt his wife and the other people close to him reached out to him, but in the end, it was not enough to prevent his death. We should not blame Williams or criticize what we do not understand. Everyone is battling something, and sometimes, sadly, the shadows win. As fans, we grieve. His family and friends will have an emptiness and sorrow that will never be completely filled, but I pray today that Williams's turbulent life has now found some measure of peace. Williams left us with a lifetime of memories and hours and hours of laughs. We did not know him away from the screen, but in every performance he gave us a part of himself and for that I am grateful.
Every single solitary life is precious. Let's love each person in our lives a little more, let's reach out a little further, let's embrace a little tighter. Sometimes seizing the day is about seizing the moment. Take a moment today to tell those you love that you care and that you are open to hearing their challenges without judgment and without giving advice. Be truly present in the lives you touch and, as I am sure Robin would remind us, be sure to laugh a little too.