Warning: The following blog contains some strong language. Please, if you find it objectionable, don't read it.
I found out about Robin Williams' death this past Monday, August 11, when I arrived in my hotel room in St. Petersburg, Florida. I was excited to be there with three of my parishioners for a conference; ready to learn, think, process, and most importantly, go to the beach. But the terrible news about Robin left me reeling. That night I sat up late watching every clip of him that I could find on the internet, laughing and crying in equal measure. So many people -- fans, admirers -- are grieving his loss as if he were family. I can only imagine how much worse the pain and grief is for his actual family and close friends. I also know I can't add anything new to the tributes and discussions that have followed since his death, but he's been my hero since I was 11. So I write this because that's what I do when the unimaginable happens.
Along with millions of others, I fell in love with Robin Williams when he first appeared as Mork from Ork on an episode of Happy Days. From that moment, I was hooked. I received his first live comedy album Reality, What a Concept, for Christmas in 8th grade. A friend of mine posted a picture of that album on my Facebook timeline, and commented that it was this album that helped two misfits survive Junior High. How right she was. I listened to track after hilarious track over and over, memorizing every word. (A New York echo. "Helloooo?!'" "Shut the fuck up!") In seminary, my friends and I rented and watched his special, A Night at the Met, so often we not only memorized the routines, we'd act them out as well. (On the late Libyan leader, Khadafi, "When you look at Khadafi, doesn't he look like a cross between Omar Sharif and Charles Manson? He's got the handsome face, but the eyes are going 'Helter Skelter! Helter Skelter!'") I have the dvd of his Live on Broadway special from 2002. When the country was trying to make its way in this scary and strange post September 11 world, Robin made us laugh, not only with silliness, but with what he did best; pointing out the absurdity of the things in life we take with too much seriousness. (On Donald Rumsfeld. "Every so often Donald Rumsfeld will come out and say, 'I don't know where. I don't know when. But something awful is going to happen.'")
Robin Williams was a brilliant comedian, and he was a brilliant actor. Basically, he was just brilliant. A genius, whose mind seemed to work at a dizzying pace. I've read post after post from people sharing their favorite Robin Williams movie. Dead Poet's Society. Mrs. Doubtfire. Good Morning, Vietnam. Aladdin. Awakenings. The Fisher King. Night at the Museum. This is just a fraction of the roles he made his own. His range as an actor was just one more testament to his enormous talent. His dramatic roles elicited tears as effortlessly as his comedy made our stomachs hurt from so much breath stealing laughter.
It is incredibly difficult, then, to wrap our heads around the truth that this brilliant, talented, gifted, funny man took his own life. I've heard this described as a "tragic, senseless death." True indeed. Yet anyone who has faced the demon of depression knows that there are moments, perhaps fleeting but there, when death seems to be the only thing that makes any sense. Just as someone dying of a terminal illness wants to have the pain over once and for all, someone caught in depression's grip may want that as well. In the wake of his death, well-intentioned people have opined that if you're sad, talk to someone. Yet depression is more than sadness. It is more than grief. It is the "black dog," that Winston Churchill described. It is a bad dream from which you can't awaken. It turns the world into a dull beige; no color, no joy, no hope. Depression doesn't affect just a few folks, it is the third most prevalent disease in the world. It is a first world problem and a third world problem. Yet even its pervasiveness has not erased depression's stigma. We don't want to talk about it. But our silence kills.
In Live on Broadway, he references self-immolation by Buddhist monks as a form of protest. In answer to the question of why someone would do this, Robin answers as the monk, "To make you deal with your shit." It seems to me that in his life, and now in his death, Robin Williams never backed away from making us deal with our shit. Considering the hatred and the violence that is happening in faraway places like Iraq and Gaza to our own backyard in Ferguson, Missouri, we have a lot of shit that we need to deal with. As societies and cultures, we can't seem to learn the lesson that hatred and violence in response to hatred and violence doesn't solve anything. Laughter may not solve our conflicts either, but when all the proverbial doors close, it might just open the window to more understanding, more tolerance, more peace, more love. Robin Williams gave us the gift of laughter. He pointed the way to that window. I hope that he's not only found peace in heaven, but that he's found his laughter again as well.