On Monday afternoon, August 11, a single sentence news “notification” popped up silently on the screen of my cellphone during a client session: “Actor and Comedian Robin Williams died in his home at age 63.” For the rest of that week, practically every client session contained some reference to his death and its meaning for each of them.
For many it was the matter of his suicide, and the apparent depression that insidiously precipitated it. For some it was the question, how could a man who for years had spread joy and happiness to so many have been so critically depressed? Or for another, how can he do it and I can’t? In each case, there was a note of offense. He should not have had to do that! He had betrayed us. Yet there was nobody to lead the parade of such anger, and so the whole matter within a week or two quietly retreated back into those hiding places deep within each of us. Strange how easily we can do that.
On that same day, August 11, I found somewhere on the web, a quote from the ancient philosopher Socrates: The comic and the tragic lie inseparably close, like light and shadow. Those words from almost 2500 years ago, and gave me a key to my own struggle with the loss of a man whom I had adored for years for his deep wit and joyous humanity. (And the irony was not lost on me that Socrates himself died by suicide in the year 399 BC.)
What is it that holds the comic and the tragic so closely together? This was the passport I needed right now. The answer I found is in going down, into the depth of our common humanity. On the surface of our consciousness, comedy and tragedy are opposite. One celebrating the joy and optimism of life and the other paying tribute to the suffering that seems ever to plague the human condition and spirit. I contend that both are intrinsic to the specifically human in each of us, and both are in a sense a part of “the human condition.” Only humans truly laugh. Also only humans know the depths of suffering. That helped me understand what Robin Williams had always been able to do, and what he has done just now as well. He knew the mystery of being human, and in the end the price of that mystery consumed him.
There are many of his movies I haven’t seen. I’m not an expert on his many works. Only last February did I first see “Good Will Hunting,” which truly transfixed me. But I recall that each time I witnessed him, in movies, back with Dick Cavett, and with many others (he was always with people), I always felt I was in the presence of an unusual and great man. If I were jealous to emulate someone, he would be in the top handful of my list.
He gave us many gifts, especially “the joy and happiness he gave others, particularly those fighting their own personal battles” - the words of his widow Susan Schneider. He cared, and he made us laugh. And in his own soul, he kept those two closely bound to each other.
We loved his humor. We loved his quick wit, his improv genius, and all without ever seeming to offend. He was a national treasure, seemingly eternal, and we figured we’d never have to ‘worry’ about him. More than anything, we loved and trusted his ‘madness.’ He’s quoted as saying “You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”
I’m reminded of a quote from “Zorba the Greek” (the movie, 1964), when old Zorba speaks to young Basil, “You’ve got everything, except one thing - madness. A man needs a little madness, or else… He never dares cut the rope and be free.”
Robin Williams seemed to possess that particular freedom. We may call it joie de vivre. When old Zorba was defeated, he still knew to go down to the water’s edge and dance. That was a meta-theme of the movie. Williams just kept going farther down. But it wasn’t supposed to defeat him like that. Damn, it wasn’t supposed to kill him!
Earlier I mentioned the word “betrayal.” Perhaps it could be said that he betrayed us by being too real. We took the comedy - that was what he gave us. We took the deep caring - that was part of his greatness. But we weren’t ready for those close cousins of comedy and caring, which are, tragedy and death.
One particular idiosyncrasy of being human our want to explain things - and use that skill to explain away that which pains our soul. So I noticed that within two days of his death, the national conversation had quickly turned to an analysis of him. Of course, suicide and depression became ready public subjects. The mental health community and hobbyists were in full public voice, avidly seizing this available ‘teaching moment.’ The presence of his newly diagnosed Parkinson’s Disease also entered the conversation. If we can’t handle something, we try to analyze it. I’ve seen it so frequently in troubled marriages - if you can’t stand it, analyze it.
Now my professional work is that of an analyst. That’s what I do. And I’ve become quite good at it over the years. But there’s a danger here. My work of analysis is with my client, and for his or her sake only, or for the sake of their relationship “to help them attain that which their heart desires and is right for them.” [That’s a purpose statement from my web-site.] So I analyze within a particular context and for a specific purpose that is part of my healing contract with them.
When I’m ‘out in the world’ and folks learn of my work, there’s a sense of anxiety that I will “analyze” them - that is, read their minds. I need to reassure them I don’t do that out in public. At a recent social gathering, someone said to me, “Please analyze me, I’ve never been analyzed before.” (It felt like I’d been chosen to deflower a virgin.) We live live in a “psychological” culture - we love to use ‘psychology’ to analyze ourselves and others - it’s a strange game we like to play. Self analysis is a national hobby, as noted by the shelves upon shelves of psychological and self-help books, and every magazine for sale in the grocery store. This ‘analysis hobby’ seems designed to reduce personal vulnerability and risk. That’s why it’s so popular.
The problem is that such analysis can easily dehumanize. It helps us explain away that which is real in our lives, especially that which is most human within and among us. It degrades the connectedness between us. That’s why I rarely engage in conversation of an analytical nature, except when it is carefully used in a safe client setting and for the sake of helping him or her come more fully alive in this world.
So when the world quickly turned to analysis of Robin Williams, I turned aside. That for me was the real betrayal of the true man. In life he knew not to analyze, except in the careful art of opening up a person’s soul. That was his genius in “Good Will Hunting” - for in turn he himself was opened to the same vulnerability, and also healing. As you can tell, I was more than impressed!
So if we are now to analyze Robin, we must allow his life and death (now inextricably bound to each other), allow them to in turn analyze us. We must allow this analysis to take us also down into the depths of our common humanity.
Robin now takes us even deeper into the mystery of life, the mystery of being more human, which also includes death. He was so fully alive - that’s why I loved him so much. Now I understand him more deeply.
For years I never really thought much about him - especially the way folks are thinking about him now - through pages and pages of post-mortem analysis. I’m glad I didn’t. I just loved that man! So now I feel that subtle deep grief that comes from really missing a person I truly came to love and admire. He made the world so very human for me.
And what does grief do? It’s a process that reveals other, often new, parts of ourselves.
What does the world need? Ask the question of yourself. What makes each of us come alive? And when we find the answer, then let’s go do it. That’s what the world needs - people who have come alive. (paraphrase of Howard Thurman)
Robin risked it, he lived it, it was his gift to the world, and to each of us. Risk forces us to pay attention. Robin teaches us to pay attention - and in the end, at least for this pilgrim, can teach us to risk everything.
Bill, Your reflections are transcending. I’m not surprised that and I appreciate that you didn’t “pile-on” the psycho-babal of popular culture. You just honored the mystery of the man.
You ask, “What makes each of us come alive?” Jumping out of airplanes comes to mind. To fully embrace the experience you must jump headlong into the air and put the risk out of your mind. To experience the exhilaration, you understand that having the experience outweighs the risk. You know the parachute may not open. I asked my ex why he jumped out of airplanes and his answer was 'because while you’re falling toward the ground all of your other problems are forgotten.' Think about that for a second! Haha!
Would I prefer a life of quiet desperation instead of taking risks? I felt reassured by what you wrote Bill. Thank you
Brilliant as always Bill. Thank you.
I believe this is your best insight yet! Thank you :)
Joan Rivers on comedy and tragedy
Terry Gross, on her show Fresh Air, interviewed Joan Rivers several times with a reprise of those interviews being featured on today’s show because of Joan’s passing yesterday. Joan made some interesting comments about the relationship between comedy and tragedy that you might find interesting, Bill. The show played on Michigan Radio at noon and will play again at 8 PM this evening. If you miss that, it will be in the Fresh Air archive available at the show’s website.
The dragon wins in the end
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