I was very sad last night. I heard the news of Robin Williams’ death and it was shocking. He wasn’t that old and I had not heard of any health problems. But, then I heard that they suspected suicide and that he had been battling severe depression and drug/alcohol problems for years and it hit me pretty hard. This was not right. It was not the way he was supposed to die. It wasn’t how things were supposed to be. Of course, I did not know him personally and I don’t react much to news of Hollywood celebrities, but this was different. This hit hard.
As I read the reaction from others on Facebook, Twitter, and message boards and as a friend of mine and I texted each other last night, I found that I was not alone. Lots of people were affected. Lots of people were grieving this. It was different from other celebrity deaths. We were all feeling some kind of deep sadness and even frustration that this is not how things were supposed to be.
I grew up with Robin Williams being a fixture of the entertainment world from Mork & Mindy and Happy Days to Popeye to his other comedic roles later such as Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin. He was a clown and did it well. If you ever saw him being interviewed on one of the late night shows, he was all over the place with hyperactive silliness to the point that he was hard to follow. But, underneath the smile and laughter and silliness, you knew that there was a genius there that came from a depth of understanding and, even pain. He did not just try to make you laugh. He tried to make you happy.
It was the more serious roles in his career that affected me the most. He had a deep side – even a dark side – that would come out and grab you and tell you something true about the world. Even something true about yourself. From movies like Dead Poet’s Society, Good Will Hunting, What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams, and Good Morning Vietnam, you would see the knowing smile, hear the wise words, but also sense the depth of pain and knowing as he experienced grief and loss and death. He was the man you wanted to sit with on the park bench as he told you a story that would explain things – things you were feeling that you couldn’t put into words. As he stood on the desk and told a generation to sieze the day, as he experienced death and loss for all of us, there was something about the smile and the words that let you know he wasn’t acting. It was real. He knew what was going on.
When I heard about the suicide, I grieved. He made us happy. Why couldn’t he be happy? Depression is a serious, dark, real thing. It grips you like the cold, dense night and immobilizes you. Nothing makes sense. All that you want is escape. Sometimes I hear people say that suicide is a selfish, cowardly thing to do. They are angry about it. I get the anger and hurt and when we are angry, we say stupid things. When someone is so depressed and hopeless that they kill themselves, perhaps there is a form of selfishness there, but it is not the kind that we who have not crossed that line understand. It is a gripping hopelessness that overrides the survival instinct and decides that ending your existence is better than going on with life. It is entirely irrational, but it is informed by pain – a pain that is difficult for any of us to understand. Depression and the suicide that sometimes results should break our hearts.
Robin Williams once said in a movie (World’s Greatest Dad, 2009), “I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” That is a poignant line and it is true in the depth of difficulty that it expresses. I am not sure that it is the worst thing in life, but it is pretty bad. Williams had insight into the beautiful, the funny, the happy, and the sublime and he could deliver the line in a way that let you know he felt it. But, as a tortured, creative soul, he also had great insight into the bad. He battled not only with depression but also with drugs and alcohol. In the end, the black dog was too much for him.
I am sad today when I think about it – not just about Robin Williams, but about so many others who struggle with depression and loneliness and heartache. Life is hard. We carry a lot of pain around with us. Just recently I have sat with two older people who broke down crying over the loneliness and pain that they are experiencing in life – sickness, death of loved ones, heartache. Life was not supposed to be this way, they said. They hurt so badly.
I sat with them and told them I was sorry. I didn’t have words to make things better. So, we prayed. We know that God hears and grieves along with us. Things are not as they are supposed to be. Life is hard – harder than it should be. God knows. God grieves. He sent His Son, Jesus, to take the pain and sin upon Himself. But, we still feel it. We still feel it deeply and we know that things are not as they should be. So, we look for some laughter and some happiness, but we know that the pain is there too. Robin Williams communicated that to us and did it beautifully and that is why his art resonated with me so deeply. It was real, or it seemed so.
I would have loved to have talked with him. It would have been an amazing conversation. But, in the end, he was someone that I knew on a screen, set in a story that ultimately was not real. The “real” that his life and work spoke to is actually right in front of me every day. The old man in the coffee shop. My father living alone. My young son trying to make the best of a tough school day. Kids laughing. Mothers crying. A doctor trying to put the best face on a difficult situation. A teacher trying to inspire her students. A reporter trying to explain what they just saw in a way that people could understand. A pastor trying to open eyes to another world and wondering if anything that he does makes a difference. Robin Williams embodied some of that human quest for happiness in the midst of pain in his art, but the real thing is right in front of us every day in every person we meet.
I don’t want to miss it. Carpe Diem.