It seemed obvious to say something about Robin Williams this week. And, it also seemed obvious that so many people have already said so much about the death of this beloved actor that nothing more really needed to be said. I have read some beautiful, wise words these past couple of days, and I have read some less beautiful, less wise, somewhat misinformed words. In the end, I opted for another Robin Williams post that isn’t about Robin Williams. Not really.
Like so many people, I was personally shocked and saddened when the news of Mr. Williams’ death reached me. Like many of you, I have watched his movies for years, and been entertained and touched by them. He was a talented and likable celebrity, and over the years many of us came to feel a personal connection with him. We felt like we knew him, and so, of course, news of his death hit us hard.
That news also showed us how much we didn’t know him. We didn’t know the depths of the depression that so captured his heart and soul. We didn’t really know about the personal demons with which he struggled. We had no idea that they were slowly syphoning off his spirit.
Because of his celebrity, and because of the personal connection so many of us felt through his celebrity, the inter webs and media have been full of articles about depression, information for people who are feeling suicidal, and many calls for us, as a society, to take mental illness more seriously and to step away from the stigma that our culture still so frequently attaches to it. Most of this — perhaps all of it — is for the good. Maybe some people will be helped, maybe some people will be saved, maybe some consciousness will be raised. But I wonder how long it will last.
Public tragedy — whether in the form of an individual celebrity’s tragedy or in the form of a communal tragedy like an earthquake or 9/11 — has the power to open us up a bit more, to enlarge us. It pulls compassion out of us and toward the person, the family, the community that has been impacted by that public tragedy. I remember in the aftermath of 9/11 how we all felt more connected, more unified than we had before, how we all seemed to treat one another more gently for a while. Before we fell back into disconnection and disunity. The opening up that we experience in the wake of a public tragedy that touches us is always temporary. Inevitably, it seems, most of us somehow absorb what has happened, shrink back into our former boundaries, and resume our “normal” lives.
And in doing so, we leave behind those who cannot escape the tragedy that temporarily captured us all, because that tragedy is also their tragedy. An alarming number of people live and struggle with depression. An alarming number of people take their lives when they cannot continue that struggle any longer. And most of us don’t ever see it, because these tragedies are not public, celebrity is not involved, and unless it happens to our friend or our loved one, we don’t have a personal connection.
It seems to me that what Jesus asks of us — what God asks of us — is to make that experience of being opened up, of being enlarged, that we so often feel temporarily after a public tragedy, a permanent part of who we are. I hear the call to “love your neighbor as yourself” as a call to a more radical openness to those around us, as a call to experience a deeper connection to others, as an invitation to live life with a larger spirit. So much of the teaching of Jesus points us in this direction. The invitation to take up our cross and follow the Master can be heard as a call away from self-preoccupation and toward a preoccupation with the welfare of our sisters and brothers. And, Jesus reminds us, everyone is our sister or brother.
This is not an easy way of life. I won’t pretend that I myself live in this way. I know that my spirit is not as large as it should be, and I know that I remain all too often preoccupied with myself and my own needs and wants. I know that the reach of my compassion is not far enough. But I also know that I am not called to perfection except in faithfulness: that is, I am called to keep trying to live in that larger space that God invites me into, knowing that God’s forgiveness is already meeting me when I can’t quite get there.
I pray for Robin Williams’ family, whose grief must be terrible enough, and they must share it with the world. I pray also for all those who live with the same struggle that he did, and for those who will some day have had enough. Finally, I pray that I might have the grace and wisdom to walk through this world knowing that everyone I meet is struggling somehow, on some level, with something, and that I might be able to meet them compassionately, as my neighbor, as I would like them to meet me.