Reading the various lamentations of the suicide of Robin Williams, I’m troubled by the tendency for people to take a single deed to define a man’s entire disposition towards life. There is a tendency to frame what happened as Williams losing his battle with depression. Or to take his act of suicide as his ultimate verdict on the value of his life, or of life itself.
But it’s neither of these things.
Monday he had a bad day with depression. A lethally bad day.
But had he been lucky enough to survive it, he would have likely regretted it. Most survivors of suicide attempts are glad to be alive. And his judgment day after day prior, over the course of decades of struggles, was that life was worth enduring even through the blackest nights of addiction and mental illness. He transmuted his pain into enduring art. It took the form of manic, exuberant, genius, edge-of-the-seat improvisational stage comedy that exuded life more than any other comedian’s. And it took the form of painfully self-revealing dramatic performances. He played so many characters who brimmed with combustible desperation and vulnerability.
In both his comedies and in his dramas, over and over he chose to participate in stories that were distinctly about existential crises, the struggle for authenticity, and the endurance of hope. These were the defining themes of his work. Few major comedic actors made as many films that bent the safe, deceiving, and artificial line between drama and comedy as Williams did. He specialized in bringing pathos to comedy and humor to tragedy.
A forgotten Robin Williams gem that I loved as a kid was a movie called Cadillac Man, in which he played a car salesman at a dealership whose motto was “nobody gets out alive”. When a suicidal gunman takes the whole place hostage, Williams’s character has to use his skills as a salesman for the purposes of hostage negotiation. And after an emotionally draining and life-changing effort ends the crisis with no deaths, in his euphoria he declares the company’s new motto to be “everybody gets out alive”.
And those are the twin things to remember about life. Nobody gets out alive. We all die. Whatever the cause. But in most places on most days, everybody gets out alive. No matter how bleak things are for us, most of us live to fight another day. And it’s the same for those struggling with depression. Most days, they win. Most days, they endure. Most days, they choose life.
On their darkest days the simple act of breathing is an act of hope. Even when the mind and heart feel like they’re in despair, they manage to breathe. They manage to take themselves to the next moment and see what it has to offer.
My point is that people who struggle with suicide win their lives over and over again. They choose life more often than those who never make living into a question. They survive numerous ledges that their minds push them out onto, managing over and over again not to fall. And we should appreciate what their high wire skills tell us about them and what matters to them. Each time they choose their family, their friends, their life’s cause, or even just the next day, it’s a choice. It’s a choice to continue valuing and to continue giving.
And what Robin Williams said in his work over and over again was that life was a mixture of anguish and joy. And eminently worth enduring the anguish for the joy. And that so much of the joy comes from valuing and from giving. It’s right there. Watch the movies again. Listen to his stand up routines. Look at his charity work. He spent a lifetime choosing life, preaching life, and spreading life.
He won. Over and over. He lived a great life. And I don’t mean that just in terms of material success. I don’t mean that his inner torment couldn’t have been unbearable just because he had fame and fortune. I mean he lived a great life precisely through bearing the unbearable, so well for so long. Day after day, he not only got out alive, he spread life around the globe.
That’s what his life was. His legacy, and his life with it, will undoubtedly live on for a very long time. He will continually entertain and, more importantly, inspire people. He’ll lift so much gloom and empower so many people—just as he spent the last four decades relentlessly doing.
The utter tragedy is that he won’t be there to enjoy it any longer. The unfairness of the world is that he couldn’t always enjoy it while it lasted as much as he deserved. And the least grateful thing we could do in repayment to him is take the wrong verdict about life away from him.
In the end, an illness killed him. Just as illnesses will kill most of us. One day losing to depression can kill you. But it doesn’t mean the entirety of his inner life was a loss. Nor that his ultimate judgment of life was that it was a lost cause.
Quite the contrary.
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