Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Brave Sir Robin ran away

I've had about 24 hours to collect my thoughts on Robin Williams.  I'd like to say something profound, but I find that my experience isn't deep enough to teach this subject. 

I don't think I could even particularly call myself a fan, at least not in any sense of devotion to him.  There are actors whom I could watch in anything--Alan Rickman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lawrence Fishburne, William H. Macy--but Robin Williams wasn't really one of them.  I liked Mork & Mindy when I was a kid, but the humor was definitely for kids. I watched a couple of episodes of his last work on TV, The Crazy Ones, and found it mostly awful (and audiences agreed; CBS canceled it after only one season). 

There were times when his stand-up comedy was sublime.  He could be a bit too frenetic at times, and therefore hard to follow, and not funny.  But when he was locked in, such as in his 2002 HBO special Live on Broadway, there was no one better.

The surprising thing for me was in coming to understand just how brilliant he was as a serious actor.  His iconic role in Good Will Hunting elevated that film to the upper echelon of American cinema.  He also guest-starred in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, playing the part of a man whose wife was murdered while they were vacationing.  If the mark of great acting is the audience's suspension of disbelief, then he was among the greatest of all time in that performance.

His serious roles, like that of the teacher in Dead Poets Society, were for me the most enjoyable probably because they were the most unexpected.  This was a man who was funny, but somehow it was possible to forget about that for an hour or two or three and simply have your breath taken away by an honest, brutal performance.

If my Facebook news feed is any indication, his suicide was shocking to most people.  In the cold light of reason, it really shouldn't have been.  He was plainly suffering from bipolar disorder or a related disorder.  Almost everyone has highs and lows.  The difference as I see it is in how high and how low.  The thing that gave him an excess of energy and vitality and creativity, during those times when he was off being brilliant, took away that energy and vitality and creativity and replaced it with pain and grief, during other times.

The title of this post comes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, of course.  The lyrics recount the bravery of Sir Robin, a knight of the round table; in that inimitable Python way, the minstrels accompanying Sir Robin on his quest predict in song that the knight will endure horrible trials, up to and including dismemberment (double entendre intended).  When Sir Robin protests, asking that they not sing about such terrible things, the minstrels change their song to accuse him of cowardice, of "bravely" running away from the battle, something he finds equally troubling.

There is a tendency to equate suicide with weakness, especially a lack of mental toughness, and selfishness.  I think that has it all wrong.  No matter how strong a person is, if you hand that person enough pain, enough feelings of worthlessness, the brain rationalizes itself into an act of self-destruction--drinking, using drugs, even suicide, anything to take away that pain.  It isn't a question of strength or bravery.  Everyone has limits.  Bipolar disorder forces those who suffer from it to skate too close to those limits.

The reality is that none of us truly walks in the shoes of anyone else.  We don't know Robin Williams just because he appeared on our TV or movie screens.  We don't know what he went through.  He was a brave man, though, facing his demons, until it wasn't enough, and he had to run away.

I am sorry that we have seen the last of his talent.  Somehow I feel robbed of all the great entertainment he won't provide us, as though I have some entitlement to it.  That is selfish on my part.  As much as I enjoyed being entertained by him, it seems craven that the source of that enjoyment was something inside him that he ultimately couldn't control, that caused him enough pain that he felt that ending his life was the only way to gain control.

But even when the victim of suicide isn't famous, or isn't particularly entertaining to be around, or doesn't have an obvious and magnificent talent to share with the world, suicide robs us of a member of our human family.  It is, in the end, the end of the only life that person will ever have.  That is a loss of epic proportion.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee. 
-- John Donne

I wish, probably in vain, that Robin Williams's death would provoke us to a new understanding of this terrible disease, to end the stigma of mental illness, to reach out to those who are suffering to give them hope in a new direction.  It probably won't happen.

But if you are reading this, and you find yourself heading down that path, know this:  Depression is not your friend.  It lies to you.  It makes you think things you would not think with a clear head.  Don't suffer in silence.  Tell someone.  Ask for help.  And keep asking until you get it.  (You have to ask because only you can know with any sense of certainty where your mental health stands on any given day.)  If you can't bring yourself to ask a friend or a family member, call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  It's free, confidential, and available every hour of every day.

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