OPINION – Everyone has a “where were you when …” story. A tale about where you were when an historic event happened, when someone did something amazing, or when someone died. It is human nature to regale others with these memories of ours that now retell as historic tales.
When I learned from news on the Web that Robin Williams had died, I stopped and thought about what I would say about him. And I realized I had just such a tale with all three in one. You see, and of course this is my opinion, Robin Williams, the man, was an historic event, he did something amazing, and his passing will remain a point of sorrow for myself and all who loved him and his amazing body of work.
There are of course those who decry his act of taking his own life as a kind of paradigm, painting him a coward – a person who quit on life and those who loved him.
I will contend with this somewhat naîve and all too insensitive notion: Was he a coward? I do not know. Neither do you.
But here is what I know of cowardice: Its foundation is fear and fear is real; it can paralyze; it can demoralize; it can leave one to believe things that simply are not true.
And while I cannot begin to espouse what Robin Williams was thinking the day he apparently took his life, I can say with some measure of assuredness, he was unhappy. And he was probably dealing with fear. Going out on a limb a little, I will assert that some of that fear was of loneliness.
It is hard to imagine a man so tactile sharp, so obviously well-read, so demonstratively and effortlessly funny, to have known loneliness.
He never seemed to quite be able to turn it off either. He was infamous for being able to carry much of his own lines on the fly without a script.
Even in interviews or when accepting awards, he amazed us all with his ability to effortlessly flow in and out of multiple characters with sarcasm and academic-like wit.
But he spoke to us of his pain, I think, through his work.
Some will remember the sitcom that launched his career, “Mork and Mindy.”
Mork was a wayward space traveler from the planet Ork. He came to reside in the attic of his earthly friend Mindy and, at the end of every show, he would report to Orson back on Ork of what he had learned that week. Sometimes it was funny. Actually, it was always funny, but sometimes it was profound.
In one episode Mork reported he had learned of something that in hindsight one would be hard pressed not to think that the man playing Mork knew of all too well.
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Orson: The report, Mork.
Mork: This week I discovered a terrible disease called loneliness.
Orson: Do many people on Earth suffer from this disease?
Mork: Oh yes sir, and how they suffer. One man I know suffers so much he has to take a medication called bourbon, even that doesn’t help very much because then he can hear paint dry.
Orson: Does bed rest help?
Mork: No because I’ve heard that sleeping alone is part of the problem. You see, Orson, loneliness is a disease of the spirit. People who have it think that no one cares about them.
Orson: Do you have any idea why?
Mork: Yes sir you can count on me. You see, when children are young, they’re told not to talk to strangers. When they go to school, they’re told not to talk to the person next to them. Finally when they’re very old, they’re told not to talk to themselves, who’s left?
Orson: Are you saying Earthlings make each other lonely?
Mork: No sir I’m saying just the opposite. They make themselves lonely, they’re so busy looking out for number one that there’s not enough room for two.
Orson: It’s too bad everybody down there can’t get together and find a cure.
Mork: Here’s the paradox sir because if they did get together, they wouldn’t need one. Isn’t that zen like?
It is almost as though under the façade of endless humor, he bore a keen understanding of a human condition he himself experienced.
One we all experience at one time to one degree or another I think.
For some the question is invariably: What, if anything, could we have done to help?
I think Norman Maclean put it best in the novel “A River Runs Through It,” when he wrote:
Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.
And love Robin Williams we did.
Since the news of his death, it has been worth noting how many people have expressed openly that they are dealing with depression also. I think the idea of someone as seemingly all-together as Robin Williams was, taking his own life, may have got some to thinking that if it can happen to him, they are not immune to it and they are reaching out.
And there is part of the answer to what we can do.
You see, much like Hugh Prather in “Notes to Myself,” I also do not believe that people are living the carefree lives that their cool countenances, bland words, or “theater of life” Facebook posts suggest. Today also never hands me the same thing twice and is also for me a mixture of ambiguous victories and vague defeats with very few moments of clear peace. I also never so quite seem to get on top of it. Life is a worthwhile struggle for sure, but a struggle nonetheless and one that seems to never end.
There is a poignant moment in Good Morning Vietnam (unscripted) where I believe we caught a rare glimpse of Robins soul. He is confronted by a convoy of young soldiers headed out into the field and in true Robin Williams fashion, breaks into a standup routine that rivals a USO tour in real time. He cracks them all up then as they drive away weeps for the knowledge he may never see them again as they are shuttled to will be sure death for many of them. He could cheer anyone up. He could sense simultaneously the beauty and the futility of the world at once and most importantly he could provide the most powerful cure for illness known to man, laugher and happiness. He just could not save himself.
And we are left to wonder not only why, but how, if at all, we could have helped.
Nanu Nanu Robin Williams. Rest in peace.
See you out there.
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