Robin Williams, gone too soon
It would be no overstatement to say the entire world was shocked by the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams in the San Francisco area on Monday, reportedly of asphyxia, making it seem likely that he committed suicide. Twitchy collected reactions from various celebrities, some of whom knew Williams personally. As USA Today noted, “Williams has battled health problems and struggled with substance abuse for decades,” and had recently checked into rehab at Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Minnesota, but sadly not even his close friends and family realized how desperate his situation was.
A visibly shaken Conan O’Brien learned of Williams’ passing while taping his show in the afternoon, and had the melancholy duty of informing his audience:
Williams’ last post on social media was two weeks ago, an Instagram birthday wish for his daughter Zelda Rae Williams, “quarter of a century old today but always my baby girl.” On Tuesday, she offered a perfectly chosen passage in tribute:
— Zelda Williams (@zeldawilliams) August 12, 2014
A statement was quickly issued by President Obama: “Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most – from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”
It’s an excellent statement, but it drew some criticism from people who noted that Obama has been stone-silent on other important deaths, such as the murder of Major General Harold Greene in Afghanistan. Actually, the loudest negative response came from those upset that Obama hasn’t said anything about the ongoing riots in Ferguson, Missouri, which have been spreading into other areas. But he instructs his staff to prepare an immediate statement about the death of a beloved actor? I would prefer not to dwell on this overlong, but let me observe that one of the big problems with the Obama presidency is his inability to understand that what a president fails to do carries as much weight as the statements he chooses to make.
Clearly Williams’ death is a major event, especially to people who grew up with fond memories from the height of his career. He made a lasting impression on popular culture, appealing to both adults and children with a combination of manic energy, keen insight, and a gentle soul. That’s quite a trifecta. We may all aspire to bring such energy to everything we do, see each other clearly enough to spread laughter, and care about each other enough to lend a helping hand. It feels as though everyone lived next door to Robin Williams – he was the wacky but dependable good neighbor to millions. And yet, we never knew that in the dark and quiet chambers of his own private space, he was suffering terribly. It’s not surprising that an aspect of the grief among his fans is a sense of remorse: If only we could have been there for him. If only we could have given him a laugh when he needed it most.
I’ve seen a number of online responses to Williams’ death that include references to a passage from Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” a story told by the vigilante Rorschach to his psychologist:
Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says “But Doctor… I am Pagliacci.” Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.
That sums up the dash of unease mixed in with the grief, surprise, and regret over Williams’ passing. If the lovable legendary comedian can fall prey to depression, what chance do the rest of us have? Unless you’re suffering from clinical depression, or have spent a lifetime standing beside a loved one as they do battle with it, it all seems so incomprehensible. How can someone with so much success and admiration, so much to live for, conclude that life is no longer worth living, at the young age of 63?
For my part, I can remember being ten years old, running through the mall and shouting “Nanu nanu!” while my mom rolled her eyes. I can remember that with a clarity that sometimes eludes me when recalling events far more recent. You can still make middle-aged guys feel like children, Mr. Williams. That’s quite a legacy.
On the occasion of another suicide in 2010, when I was writing anonymously at Hot Air, I did my best to make the case for giving life one more chance. Depression cannot be defeated through reasoned argument, but I hoped that at a crucial moment, the right words might bring a moment of hesitation, an opportunity to get back in touch with people who can help. I came close once, long ago. I remember what it felt like. I have deep sympathy for those who must face the full measure of what I briefly glimpsed. I’ve received encouraging feedback from readers over the years, so I have reproduced that post below.
A Prayer From the Living World
February 26, 2010
The body of actor Andrew Koenig was found in Vancouver’s Stanley Park yesterday. His father, Walter Koenig, said that his son “took his own life, and was in a lot of pain.” Like most of my generation, I grew up with Walter Koenig as Chekhov on Star Trek, and he played a superb villain much later, on Babylon 5. Until his press conference yesterday, I didn’t realize he was a man of such incredible strength and dignity. He asked for his family to be left in peace to mourn their loss. I hope he won’t mind if I take this sad occasion to address others who might be following the road that ended in Stanley Park for Andrew. No matter how far you have gone down that road, there is always a path that leads away. I could offer no greater tribute to Andrew and his family than trying to help you take it, or at least see it.
You won’t find the beginning of that path in your house, or your room, or any other private place where you torment yourself, and wonder why a world you’re hiding from can no longer see you. You’ll have to step outside, and take a walk through your town. You’ll pass hospitals where the gift of life is unwrapped and presented to the universe. In another wing, life is held as precious treasure by families gathered around quiet beds, surrounded by tireless machines and their tired, but determined, keepers. Perhaps you’ll find a hospice, where the dying embrace their last opportunity to share their lives with all who receive the blessing of a seat beside them. You’ll pass churches and temples, filled with the sworn enemies of despair.
You may find yourself wishing you could give the unwanted years of your future to the clients of those hospitals and hospices. I did, years ago, when I stood where you are standing now. I was on my knees at the time, offering that trade with all my heart. It doesn’t work that way. Those who tend the hospices can tell you why, and the people in the churches and temples can explain why it shouldn’t.
Stroll past your local police station, where the noble calling to risk your life in the service of others is answered… and the worship of death as a solution to problems meets its humiliating end. Maybe you’ll spot a recruiting station, where men and women who love their friends and families accept a duty that could take them away forever… because they know others love their families too, and there is no safe way to build and protect the future for them.
If your walk takes you past sunset, watch the cars rolling into the driveways of apartments and houses. If you walk from night into morning, watch the people reluctantly leaving their homes, to provide for their families. Those people are not wasting their lives, but fulfilling them. They return home to enjoy their reward, and renew their inspiration. Every day, they write new pages in the human story. None of us will see the end of that tale… but I know you share my appetite to read another chapter, and then one more after that. You may have convinced yourself to ignore it, but it’s still there.
Step into a convenience store for a cup of coffee or chocolate, and take a look at the newspapers. They are filled with pleas for help that you could answer. From the inner cities of America, to the broken streets of Haiti, and around the world, there are places where the clocks are filled with nothing but desperate hours. Another pair of hands, or another few dollars of support, are always needed. The years ahead, which you regard as a painful burden, can be given to them. It will take effort, and courage… but along the way, I can promise that your life would stop feeling like a burden.
You may view suicide as your last chance to shake the pillars of a world that has turned its back on you. The world doesn’t need any more shaking. If you’ve been telling yourself that no one will miss you when you’re gone, you are wrong. Your suicide would tear a hole through the future, and nothing could ever fill the space where you used to be. You might think you’re alone, but you don’t have to walk more than a couple of miles from your house to see a building full of people who would be delighted to meet you. There are places like Suicide Hotlines, staffed by men and women who have spent their entire lives preparing to hear the sound of your voice, and greet every day hoping to learn your name.
You may be afraid to face the years ahead. You’re not the only one, and if you extinguish the light of your faith and wisdom, you consign others to darkness. You might see death by your own hand as the end of unbearable pain… but I ask you to think about Walter Koenig, facing a wall of cameras with quiet grace in the hours after finding his son’s body, and understand that it’s only the beginning of agony.
You might have decided your fellow men are rotten to the core, and you’re weary of their company. Listen to the music of Mozart, or look upon the work of Michelangelo, and consider the argument of those who profoundly disagree. Maybe part of your problem is that you’ve been listening to the wrong music, or looking at the wrong pictures. Dark waters are easy to drown in. The judgment of the human race will not lack witnesses for the defense, and they will make their case to you, if you give them a chance.
Now, take the last few steps back to your home, and set aside one sorrow or terror with every footfall, until your mind is clear. If you’re thinking of incinerating the remaining years of your life, surely you can spare a few minutes for quiet reflection, and hear this prayer from the living world:
Please don’t leave us. We need you.
It is a quiet prayer, spoken in a soft voice, but it’s never too late to listen.