I am not sure anyone would have predicted how many thoughts and feelings of so many people would be dedicated to the loss of Robin Williams. Personally, I found myself thinking about it during a morning jog, and the rest of that day. I wondered what clients of mine and everyone else would think about someone probably considered by most of us as incredibly successful, loved, rich, fortunate, and funny taking his own life. How would we make sense of it? Would there be judgment? Would people sympathize or empathize? Would people not at all be able to connect to someone seemingly having so much of what some of us long for and still suffering enough to choose to end his life? Or would this passing not have much of an impact?
It turns out my clients and, it seems Americans in general, have been spending considerable time reflecting on the passing. I was astounded how much his passing affected the national consciousness. I was also touched by the gentleness expressed in so many posts online about how his work had brought enjoyment and how much sympathy fans had for him and his family.
Initially as I ran that morning, I imagined writing about suicide and how difficult it is for many if us to truly imagine suffering so great we would do almost anything to make it stop. Hoping that with greater understanding more people could bring support to those in need and perhaps create policies and fund research to aid treatment efficacy. Originally I thought I would list some of the predictors of suicide, explain how the primary psychological mechanism was responsible, and discuss which treatments could be preventative, and how there are still people we can’t reach. I planned on explaining that many people who could be helped aren’t and there is still a group of people who receive treatment for which it isn’t effective and that these are the reasons we need more research and more open dialogues about this too common tragic end.
But as I listened to people talk about Robin Williams and as I read about him, about all of the other days of his life- not his last one, about all of his other behaviors; all of his other choices seemed so incredibly important.
While I can never know what his experiences were, it seems likely from much of what he shared publicly, even mentioning details in his stand-up acts, that he battled addiction. I don’t claim to know what or even if he had other diagnoses, but I imagine that there was considerable emotional and psychological pain that often accompany addiction issues.
But with that internal pain, there were still so many days, performances, and interactions. What became clear as I remembered movies of his I had seen, and discovered as I talked to people, was that in part so many people were so moved by someone they didn’t know because of the sheer magnitude of his contribution to our memories- he was prolific. His performances were not only Oscar worthy- but they were frequent – he gave tons of performances for children, adults- for everyone. There is no doubt there had to be many days he didn’t feel like it. Yet he gave.
I have found myself many times quoting his Scottish golf bit from one of his performances. In fact, in between finishing that last sentence and this one, I went and watched it again- his performances are that enjoyable. And who won’t laugh while watching Mrs. Doubtfire or laugh and fight back tears watching Good Morning Vietnam? So many days he gave performances- and probably carried emotional pain and psychological conflict with him, even on some of those days. We all benefitted from those choices, our lives have been richer because of those choices- hopefully his life was richer from choosing to work and persist too.
Psychological Pain and Values
Maybe his suffering was far greater than many of ours- we can never know. What I do believe is that as humans, we all carry the capacity to suffer intense psychological pain, and if you can’t imagine that, please consider yourself fortunate. I also believe his great body of work is a testament to what one can do, acting even while carrying pain, instead of waiting for all pain to cease- valuing what is most important, persisting, and persevering. He gave performances that moved us, entertained us, and will continue to do so for generations to come.
His wife, Susan Schneider, said “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.” While it may seem impossible not to think of his death, if anyone can make us forget about pain and loss, Robin Williams may be the guy. I’ve said many times that I believe humor to be a potent therapeutic tool. In fact, it seems laughter in therapy sessions is typically a very good prognostic indicator from my standpoint. He gave us laughter and joy- what gifts. Those gifts could be enough to make us appreciate him- but as I read there was more. Outside of professional life, and apparently many times outside of the public eye, he gave in other ways.
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I heard an amazing anecdote that may give those of us who didn’t know him an idea of what he found important. Jessica Cole, a young girl, diagnosed with brain cancer, had been granted her dying wish, to meet her hero, Robin Williams. Unfortunately, she became too weak and was not going to be able handle the long flight. After hearing that, Robin Williams paid for his own chartered flight to go to her. Other stories have surfaced as well- all indicating other ways he connected to people outside of acting and stand up comedy.
He will surely be missed by his family and friends. He will also be missed by the rest of us whose lives were enriched by his work- choosing on so many days to give his best. Perhaps we can also benefit by recognizing and emulating the behaviors in his life that were dedicated to values like compassion, connection, and generosity.
At times we may hope with the next achievement or insight we will discover the life without the dark shadow, the sky without storm clouds, the emotional life free of bad feelings- but are any of us ever free of that? Perhaps that too is why this particular loss, the death of a man that brought us such joy and laughter doesn’t make sense to us. How could he have elicited so much joy and appeared so energetic and ebullient- while at times suffering underneath to such an extent? I hope we can all open up to the possibility that meaningful work and satisfying lives may not be free from emotional pain. Robin Williams most certainly had emotional pain in his life and struggled, and for so many years continued to work, connecting us to him, and to each other. We can all learn from choices like that.
As always Kahlil Gibran gives a perspective that may elucidate some of these issues.
On Joy and Sorrow
By Kahlil Gibran
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.
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