*Trigger warning: this post contains references to suicide.*
I didn’t want my first post back to be about suicide so I’ve held on to this piece and by now I think everything that’s going to be said has been said about the death of Robin Williams. But I’m going to say some stuff anyway. I was absolutely gutted when I heard. My sister is a huge fan and I was actually sitting on her couch looking at a framed, signed photo of him when her boyfriend told us. That was a surreal moment. I was so sure we’d get to watch him grow old, turn into the wacky grandpa everyone wants.
It’s been a couple of weeks, and in that time the internet has filled up with stuff about artists and comedians, their high rate of mental illness, their propensity for substance abuse, their suicide statistics. I feel like this is all fairly common knowledge, but we tend to forget about it until another one bites the dust and it gets thrown back in our faces. We ignore it as a day-to-day reality, as something we could help with, until it’s too late and we are forced to mourn. The fact is, the limelight burns. No amount of celebrity or money will fix the inside of someone’s head. Power won’t hold your hand and tell you everything will be okay. The love of millions won’t make you any less lonely in the middle of the night. Fame doesn’t check to see that you’re taking your meds.
People talk about suicide like it’s selfish or cowardly. I disagree. Life is fucking hard. Not in a pedestrian, gotta-pay-the-bills kind of way, although that does pose its own set of struggles. No, I mean that all of us, to a man, are tasked with making the most of our century or so on the face of this rock. That’s fucking daunting. Some folks just aren’t up to it. They quit. They leave us and it’s heartbreaking, but never, ever think that it’s lazy. I suppose a good percentage of them have some sort of faith in an afterlife and it’s comforting to think that it will all get better in that other place. That the pain will end and that we can exist beyond it, outside of it. I don’t believe that myself, but I don’t begrudge anyone that comfort, that little piece of hope. That’s powerful stuff, one of the engines that drives the world.
None of which is to say that I support suicide as a decision in general. But to judge someone’s life based on their death is absurd. These people aren’t weak, they’re tired. They’re not cowards for being unable to face another day, not when every day brings nothing but suffering and the promise of more misery. Sometimes there just aren’t any bright spots in the darkness. I don’t know that it’s really suicide that we have a problem with as a culture, but the aftermath. Death happens all the time. It’s a part of life and it will come for every single one of us. To make the decision as to when and how is not selfish, even if it seems so to those who get left behind. But it makes us feel like we weren’t enough to live for. Because we weren’t. That’s rough, but it’s true. I think it’s tremendously selfish and unhealthy, the way that we make suicide about the living.
(Having said all of that, I want to make it clear that suicide is a final solution and not an idea to fuck around with lightly. I’m not a fan of the practice, even if I do my best to understand it. If you are considering killing yourself, please talk to someone – a friend, a shrink, a stranger on the street. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800.273.8255 in the U.S.)
Back to my point.
Mr. Williams’ death is sad. I’d like for us all to do our best to think not about his death but about his life. He lived and breathed to make people happy and that is, frankly, a pretty tough gig. The world can be shitty, can seem overwhelmingly negative, and there’s more than a little temptation to give up on doing our parts to make it better. It’s hard work being a force for good. So let’s not be sad in thinking that he chose to leave us, but be happy that he lived at all. Furthermore, the man was a fucking wizard. He could do anything. From his frenetic standup to his most subtle dramatic roles, it all seemed equally effortless, as natural as breathing for him.
My favorite of his films is Dead Poets Society. It’s a beautiful movie. Maybe it’s because when I first saw it I was going through a heavy Whitman phase. Or because I went to a shitty school and wept knowing that I would probably never have a teacher like that (I did, but not until college). Whatever it was, that movie sticks with me. I’m a grownup now and a lot of my friends are teachers. Much love and respect guys, I do not envy you your jobs. But I’m absolutely positive, in the squishiest bits of my little heart, that they will be someone’s Mr. Keating. And I hope whoever it is has the balls to tell them what kind of an impact they made. We should all do that more often. Anyway, I love that movie. Makes me want to write poetry and take walks in New England snowstorms.
What I think I like most about Robin Williams, though, is that almost without exception his films meant something. Popeye aside, if he did slapstick, it was in service of a great story. He brought levity to heavy subjects, a credit to his acting as well as to the great scripts he chose. Awakenings, Dead Poets Society, The Birdcage, Good Will Hunting, What Dreams May Come – disease, art, identity, genius, and death, all made funny and beautiful.
Because life is funny and beautiful.
It is absolutely critical that we remember that, you guys. Look up from your day occasionally and take a second to recognize what an amazing and powerful creature you are. You, a cog in this weird universal machine. You, a glitch in the matrix. You, with your flaws and your fuckups and your irrevocable mistakes. You, with your stories and your triumphs and your victory, every day, over entropy. Remember, most of all, that “to live” is a verb. You do it, it doesn’t happen to you.