Tuesday, August 12, 2014

[Through Stunned Tears, I Say Farewell to a Man Who Helped Shape My Childhood]

I have really struggled to articulate the grief I feel in learning about Robin Williams' suicide yesterday. I only managed four hours of fitful sleep last night, as my subconscious struggled to come to terms with losing a friend I never met and with processing how a man whose life brought joy, laughter, and truth to countless millions could carry such despair that he could not bear to face another day.

Some of my earliest memories are of watching Robin bring to life the character of Mork from Ork via Nick at Nite. It was a long time, even, before I knew what his name was besides Mork. It didn't matter, because Mork was real to me. Hook premiered when I was eight, a year and a half before my mom died, and I can remember being confused about why I wasn't allowed to see it yet (it was rated PG-13), since it starred Robin Williams, as Peter Pan of all people. Then came Aladdin, and over time, more grown-up films that demonstrated his amazing breadth as an actor. There was never a time in which Robin Williams was not in my life--at least, my media life. He really was like a friend I'd never met.

Last night and this morning, I've read through dozens of memorial articles on the internet, and one thing that stands out to me is how people remember his generosity and humility. From surprising Christopher Reeves in the hospital after his accident (bringing him the first laughter since), to smaller stories of his genuine hospitality to anyone he came across, famous or not, to his work for charities such as St. Jude's Hospital, one thing is clear: Robin Williams was all heart.

Some time ago (I can't pinpoint the exact moment anymore), I noticed that, more than most, his eyes always held a twinkle of joy and humor that could not hide the sadness he carried. Frenetic humor or serious role, those eyes always showed a man carrying a burden of heartache. I'd hoped he had the upper hand, but as we know today, he could not fight it forever.

I'm reminded of an episode of Doctor Who, in which the Doctor and Amy Pond encounter Vincent Van Gogh. After overcoming the grave danger of the episode, in an effort to show Van Gogh that his work would eventually become some of the best-loved of all time and bring great joy to countless millions, they bring him to the present, to a showing of his works. The scholar/curator, portrayed by Bill Nighy, not knowing in whose presence he was speaking, explained that Van Gogh,
is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular, great painter of all time. The most beloved, his command of colour most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world, no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world's greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.
After they return him home, clearly uplifted in learning his impact on the world, Amy believes that they must have surely saved him from his suicide. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and returning the gallery, she finds that the events still played out as they originally did in history. She is devastated, but the Doctor makes an important point:
Amy Pond: We didn't make a difference at all.
The Doctor: I wouldn't say that. The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. Hey.
[hugs Amy]
The Doctor: The good things don't always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.
It's an important point that I hope and pray we learn from this story and from Robin's life. Depression is a real illness--not a sulky state of mind, and not usually related to circumstances. A person who is suicidal is not thinking in terms of what will make them happy. They just want to not be in constant pain. This is why it's so important that we not stigmatize those who battle mental illness, but, rather, help them and do whatever we can to find ways to successfully treat it. No one treatment works for everyone because everyone's body and neurological chemistry is different. It's why chronic depression is such an ongoing struggle. I've struggled with depression, though not anything close to that level, since hitting puberty, and there are times, unrelated to events in my life, when I can't get out of the pain completely. I've never been to that point, but I can understand how one would find oneself there, no matter how grateful one is for the blessings in one's life.

Robin Williams, I thank you for your life and your work, and for the way you lived to lift others up. Your humor has saved many through the gift of laughter, and your dramatic roles, rooted in truth and compassion, have inspired more people than you could ever have known. Your generosity and charity have undoubtedly helped to save the lives of many. I am so sorry that in the end, the bad things in your life got the upper hand. The concept of the sad clown is true to life so very often, and in your case, the funniest clown had some of the deepest grief. I pray that you finally have the peace you so desperately sought, and I hope that now you can find the joy that eradicates the pain.

As Evan Rachel Wood shared on her Twitter feed yesterday:
"Genie, you're free."

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