Good Morning: Thoughts on Robin Williams, and Hearing Whole Stories

When I was little, my dad bought the soundtrack (cassette tape, of course) to Good Morning, Vietnam. For a time, we listened to it in the car. All the time. I knew every word to every song. And I also knew the dialogue. Dad probably thought I was too young to ‘get’ some of the  more crass humor (he was right); and that I was too little to catch the bad language (wrong!). Thing is, even though I didn’t really understand WHY “Follow the Ho Chi Mihn Trail” was funny–or what was so dissonantly hilarious about well-placed curse words, spoken in perfect imitation of Walter Cronkite—I DID get that it was funny. Because it just was.

When I was older, I went back and watched the whole movie. It did not disappoint. All those hilarious little snipets that I knew from childhood came to life and made a WHOLE lot more sense, when placed in the context of a fuller narrative. The thing is, the movie itself was a whole lot darker than the soundtrack. That little cassette tape took all the fun and uplifting music, and all the funniest soundbites, and condensed them into one easily digestible listening experience. Suitable even for children (mostly).

As is so often the case, the bigger story had violence. Suffering. The disastrous fall-out of the human love of power, at both micro and macro levels. There was individual loss, and global tragedy. That movie pretty much holds the scope of human experience within a 2-hour frame. Which is what great story-telling does, really.

And at the heart of that powerful story, and all the side-splitting moments between, was Adrian Cronauer—brought to life by the breathtaking talent of Robin Williams. Can you imagine anyone else in that role? There are certainly others who could have played the part; but I am convinced that Williams alone possessed the particular talent to balance the comedy and tragedy of that narrative, and throw it all into such poignant, truth telling relief.

I keep thinking about Good Morning, Vietnam today. Adrian Cronauer managed to bring laughter to the midst of a place full of horror and heartbreak. He was deeply wounded by all the suffering that he witnessed, but he was vigilant about maintaining some small sense of joy for those who walked in darkness. This was, in a nutshell, the story of Robin Williams’ life. In every interview I ever read or heard, he acknowledged his struggle with mental illness. And yet, he just kept on being FUNNY. Not in a slapstick, hide-behind-the-laughter kind of way; but in a deeply human, authentic, and truth-telling fashion that was so uniquely his.

Let this be a reminder, that those who walk in great darkness…often carry a really bright torch out in front of them. It might hide the sadness that eats away from the inside. It might even bring hope and joy to others, in the midst of sorrow that is more global and pervasive in scale. But remember, most people we meet—be they celebrities we view from afar or neighbors we meet every day—are only giving us the soundtrack version of their story. We hear the best songs, the lighter anecdotes, the easy laughter… But there is ALWAYS a bigger story beneath the soundbites, and there’s a good chance that story has its share of heartache, and its own element of darkness.

There are so many conversations swirling around the story of Williams’ death: discussion of the stigma surrounding mental illness, and about the access (or lack thereof) to good care. Those are important conversations, and I’m glad people who know more than me are leading them. But what I want to say today is: handle each other with care. Even the sparkliest, most loveable, best joke tellers and people-pleasers among us carry some burden of doubt, or fear, or sadness. And those who we find most UNloveable, abrasive, challenging, and downright difficult; how great their burden must be, that it shows so clearly from the outside.

Everyone we meet—we are always only seeing the movie trailer. The concise editorial version that is deemed fit for public consumption, and perhaps the ears of children. Chances are, the fuller narrative contains an element of tragedy. Let that knowledge guide how we greet strangers, how we encounter neighbors, even how we drive the dang car… And certainly, how we walk with those we love. Our small moment of kindness and understanding could be all the light someone needs to throw that sorrow into relief, and move on into a new, good morning.

 

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About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...


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