When Robin Williams died a few days ago, I got a text asking if it was real and was a little bombarded by all the Facebook commentary about it. I didn’t want to think about it; I didn’t want to acknowledge it had happened; I didn’t want to write anything about it, and all that’s mostly because I didn’t think it should really affect me that much. I mean, I didn’t know the guy. He wasn’t my friend or yours, and though I suppose it’s always tragic when a beloved comedian or actor dies, I don’t usually dwell on it, so why was this different?
The simplest answer is that we come to know an actor not by who they might really be but by who they portray (although, to a great degree, that is who they are), and throughout (most) of our childhoods, Robin Williams portrayed some of the more compelling characters – the very characters that reminded us of who we really are or who we really wanted to be. He was the inspiring teacher who wanted us to love the world with words or the good-natured, brilliant doctor who taught the medical world that patient’s are people. He dived into the depths of heaven and hell and took us into that fantasy land. He confronted the issues of broken families and made some poor choices in an effort to keep the family together. He was once a boy who never wanted to grow up, but somewhere in there, changed his mind and lost all the innocence of childhood only to find it again years later in his children. Or, he was the only therapist experienced enough to help a brilliant, young man – abandoned but arrogant – find his way out of a book and into embracing the world. And in just about every one of those characters, the man we met was a man who encouraged us to live a life of empathy, a life that acknowledged that loving other people, as well as loving ourselves, is hard but important. He added to a culture that gave us that incredibly important message, and dare I say that there’s a whole generation of us now who want to love the way Robin Williams and his characters loved. But that means we may very well be a generation who hurts the way he and his characters hurt, too.
I think that’s why it hit me, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. A dear friend of mine who, like Robin, can carry about her own tormented soul messaged me after some of the dust of his death had settled and said, “I can’t help but feel like… if Robin Williams can’t beat depression, what hope do I have?” I don’t really think that’s fair. To Robin Williams or to my friend. No one, no matter what amount of happiness they’re capable of giving to the world, is exempt from having that happiness snatched away. The important lesson of Robin Williams’ death is that things like addiction or depression or suicide can grab hold of even the best of us, the ones of us who might on the outside seem the happiest. But that shouldn’t mean there’s no hope. To the very end, Robin Williams sold us a message of hope, a message he was right about despite his ability to hang onto it when, one day, his pain outweighed his ability to cope. I read recently, and it’s worth saying again, that “when pain exceeds pain-coping resources, suicidal feelings are the result. Suicide is neither wrong nor right; it is not a defect of character; it is morally neutral. It is simply an imbalance of pain versus coping resources.” And so, to that end, I think it’s worth saying that there’s always hope because there’s always going to be coping resources – in other people, in literature, in the very kind of comedy and film Robin Williams gifted to us. Robin’s decision in the end doesn’t wash away the coping resources that are out there. But it makes it all the more important to ensure people know what they are and how to find them.