Losing Robin Williams
By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Despite my shock at the news of the death of comedian and actor Robin Williams, I did not actually think that his passing would so affect me. I have been deeply saddened, and actually shaken by his apparent suicide.
It is always difficult to believe that someone who has made millions laugh with such intensity that they are falling out of their chairs can be tormented by very real demons. Williams fought substance abuse for years as he was, apparently, fighting depression. His childhood, as described, seemed to be something out of a gothic horror with him in near isolation and having to create an entire world for himself in order to have company. His near futile search for attention and love from his parents was anything other than healthy.
Yet, despite all of that, Robin Williams emerged as a phenomenal actor, comedian and, yes, social commentator. Much like Richard Pryor, who was equally tormented by a different set of demons, Williams was able to unpack reality in a manner in which it stood for all to see. While mocking various forms of oppression, discrimination and otherwise narrowness, Williams could turn what would have otherwise been a laborious lecture into an outrageous comedic skit that left an ever lasting impression on the viewer or listener.
Suicide is difficult for most people to accept, and for good reason. My retort, when I hear anyone even suggest that it might be a good idea to pull the plug, is to remind them that we will ultimately be dead for a long time, therefore there is no rush to advance the clock.
While such a comment may bring about a chuckle and a raised eyebrow, at the same time it misses something with which we must all grapple. Intellectually one can understand that someone in physical pain, e.g., in the final stages of inoperable cancer, may choose to end their own life in order to cease the agony. What we must appreciate is that clinical depression also brings with it a pain that seems not to end. The sort of depression with which Robin Williams was, apparently, grappling was not the experience of being sad. As the noted actor Rod Steiger, himself a victim of clinical depression, once commented: depression was the equivalent of living in a world that was eternally gray. It produced a sense of hopelessness that could not be resolved by simply suggesting to someone that they ‘get over it,’ or ‘move on with life.’
In our society, we do not respect the reality of clinical depression. While there are medicines that can treat it, those of us who do not suffer depression are regularly intolerant of its victims, either impatient with them or viewing them as crazy. In losing such a brilliant mind as Robin Williams I can only hope that we not only stop to appreciate his myriad contributions, but also take a moment to reflect on the larger need within this society to produce means to encourage hope for those who feel that their lives are nothing more than a purgatory of sadness.
The world is a better place as a result of Robin Williams. I hope that his passing strikes enough chords to force the rest of us to make it even better.