The great Robin Williams struggled, seeking healing and help, for many years, in rehab and — according to a close friend of mine — in church.
His great performances — The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, Insomnia, Good Will Hunting, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Awakenings — are among my all-time favorites in cinema. Even his cameo appearances were often something to treasure. (Think of Dead Again or Deconstructing Harry.)
Costumed as Mork from Ork, he was on the cover of the first magazine I read as a child: an issue of Hot Dog! Soon after that, I eagerly opened an issue of Dynamite, which featured an interview. I can’t remember which of those two magazines it was − I was only 8 or 9 at the time − but one of them included an interview in which Williams talked about freedom of the imagination in a way that made a huge impression on me. He spoke of how his parents would buy him die cast model kits, and he would go home, open them up, mix up all of their pieces, and then build contraptions born of his own wild imagination.
That method translated well to his frenetic, surprising, wildly unpredictable comic style. Nobody could improvise like Williams.
But it was probably more than just imagination. His energy and uninhibited flamboyance were probably enhanced — in a way similar to steroids — by substance abuse. Moreover, his ability to fling himself beyond the bounds of our own imaginations was very likely driven by pain, by a compulsion to escape (or at least deny) a roiling sadness, fear, and suffering that was still waiting for him when he landed.
For better or worse, he made magnificent art out of wrestling darkness.
I could write a book on what his characters have meant to me. He made good movies great, and mediocre movies worth watching. I didn’t care for Spielberg’s Hook, but I loved Williams’ in it. Williams’ remarkable restraint was the most interesting thing in Awakenings. And while I cringed at how Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society spurred his young students toward recklessness instead of maturity, Williams did a wonderful job of inspiring a love for the communal celebration of art, and that inspired me to begin a reading group that continues in my community almost 25 years later.
But it’s The Fisher King that means the most to me. His performance as Parry moved me so deeply that I wrote about him in my moviegoing memoir, Through a Screen Darkly. And I was delighted to write a brief celebration of the film for Arts and Faith’s “Top 25 Divine Comedies.” In Terry Gilliam’s inspired masterpiece, Williams found the heart of a man who could be a fool, a clown, a dreamer, a lover, a grieving widower, a poet, an inventor, a dancer, and a Knight of the Round Table. He careened between seemingly impossible hopes and seemingly irreparable damage. With every Tasmanian-Devil flourish, he led us to suspect that this was not just a storyteller’s invention, but an actor revealing things about his own stumbling progress through life.
And the stumble from which Williams cannot recover on his own… that stumble has me wondering. I know some lively, hilarious, flamboyant people. How much of their wild charisma comes from a deep need to be loved, or a compulsion to escape their darkness? Who among my friends and acquaintances might be feeling what Williams felt — a similar sense of weakness, oppression, or hopelessness? Who within my reach might be thirsty for a word of tenderness and care, for help in a time of fragility and perceived failure?
I could let those questions hang in the air: Typical generalizations that turn this post into a chance for me to sound conscientious and big-hearted.
But that wouldn’t be the truth.
Last night, as I drove home from work, I listened to the NPR tribute to Robin William’s legacy, and there were tears on my face. They were genuine tears. I love what Williams gave the world.
When I arrived at home, I sat on the couch and shared the news with Anne, who was shocked and saddened like most of us.
And in those moments of sorrow, there was a knock at our front door.
I opened the door to find an anxious, red-faced man with matted blonde hair and a sticky mustache. He was holding buckets, a spray bottle, and a long-handled squeegee. If William Sanderson — the actor who played Larry on the TV show Newhart and android designer J. F. Sebastian in Blade Runner — had played one of the homeless men alongside Robin Williams in The Fisher King, he would have looked just like this.
The stranger said, “I hope I’m not bothering you, sir, but may I help you out by washing your windows?”
We are not used to interruptions like this at all. But this fellow had been to our door two weeks earlier asking the same question. And I immediately reminded him, “Sir, I’m sorry, but as I told you last time, this house is a rental, and any work done on the house needs to be approved by our landlords.”
Even before I finished saying this, he recoiled a step as if I’d pushed him. He blinked fitfully and looked away down the street, saying, “I’m so sorry, sir. I’m so sorry. You’re right. I forgot about that, sir. There’s just so many houses in this neighborhood, I don’t remember everything. I’m sorry. I won’t bother you again.”
And he was gone. He was gone very quickly.
I sat back down with Anne. And a moment later I felt a great pressure, as if a storm front had suddenly overcome our house. I tasted the sharp edge of the way I had spoken, felt my throat go dry. All I could fumblingly say to Anne, “I was too hard on that guy.”
“Maybe we could give him some food,” she said. “He’s just hoping to earn some money, right? He’s probably hungry.”
I felt even more ashamed. Anne was a few steps ahead of me, thinking of ways to help the stranger.
I am not making any of this up. And what’s more — at the time, I was completely blind to the stark contrast between my distress over Robin Williams’ loneliness and despair and my attitude toward the man who had knocked on my door.
Now, it seems like the farthest thing from coincidental timing.
We went out the front door to call after him, but he was gone. We got in the car and drove around the neighborhood.
And by God’s grace, we found him.
He was walking along, door to door, with the stride of a character that Robin Williams might have played: a broken man, someone who has lost what once held him together, a Don Quixote charging at windmills with a sponge on a stick, a weary soldier staggering along in a desperate search for a Holy Grail.
I approached him and apologized for being curt with him. He quickly waved his hands and told me that I’d done nothing wrong. He was far more gracious than me. Feeling awkward and unhelpful, I handed him a carton full of the pizza we would have eaten for dinner, which he immediately accepted. I gave him some money for bus fare. And he did not make any requests. He was grateful, and he moved on, looking for a way to share what he had to give in hopes of receiving something… just a little grace… in return.
This did nothing to make me feel better. I still feel like a fool. It wasn’t enough. Too little, too late. Even after that sharp jolt of shame and my fumbling recovery effort, I feel that I showed only the barest trace of care for that stranger.
I didn’t ask if he would like to join us for church on Sunday morning, where he might have met others who could introduce him to far more useful resources.
I didn’t even ask his name.
In that exchange, I was the one with the most missing pieces.
So who am I to ask why Robin Williams succumbed, in one minute of one hour of one difficult day, to hopelessness?
If a man with a loving wife, with children he cherished, with adoring fans all over the world — with all of these advantages that many of us covet, thinking they would solve our problems — can still stumble into the abyss during an hour of hopelessness, then I am probably surrounded by people who are teetering on that precipice every day. For I can see so many struggling with depression, addiction, regrets, and private shame… and most of them lack those advantages. Like the man on my doorstep, they don’t have family or a home. They can’t do a commercial and make a quick thousand bucks. They cannot fix what the world has broken within them. And they have no inclination to call out for a loving God because they do not see evidence of any such thing in the people he created… especially me.
No, it wouldn’t be appropriate to beat myself up about how I failed the man who knocked on my door. That would be, in a way, egocentric and unmerciful. We all fail one another on a daily basis. We can all do better.
I know I’m not capable of being anybody’s savior, but I can unfold the map of my experience and point to places of grace, places to which others have led me. I want to invite anyone who is thirsty to come back with me to places where I have found living water. The wells. The rivers. The oceans. In nature. In art. In community. In Christ.
I want to be more vigilant. I want my friends to know that they can talk to me if they need a listening ear. I don’t want to be too busy for them. I don’t want to hear myself speaking shallow assurances. I don’t want to assume that somebody else is taking care of things. And I don’t want to pretend that I have all the answers. (If I had all the answers, I wouldn’t need any faith. I want to love. To suffer alongside. To echo others’ demands for understanding. To cooperate in an upward climb towards hope.
And yet I know from experience that sometimes even a lavish show of love and grace is not enough for us to save each other from our weaknesses, diseases, and darkness. Sometimes the head, the heart, and the delicate internal compasses are too broken and we cannot find our way to the truth. That yawning abyss around which Robin Williams desperately danced… there, but for the grace of God, go you. Go I.
Even so: The darkness is weaker than the light. Even if it swallows us up. Because the light, too, was swallowed up. Remember? When you’re down, the light is down there with you. You cannot fall from its reach.
On his album “Civilians,” Joe Henry sings words that have haunted me since I first heard them, words of incredible consolation and hope:
We’re taught to love the worst of us
and mercy more than life
but trust me…
mercy’s just a warning shot across the bow.
I live for yours
And you can’t fail me now.
Something in my heart resonates with these lines. I believe them to be true. I believe that God’s grace is great enough to overpower our own failures, and that love surpasses our capacity to imagine it. There is nowhere we can go that Christ has not gone before us, nowhere so far that our cries for him will not be heard by his mercy.
In closing, I’d ask that you watch this clip from my favorite Terry Gilliam film… and my favorite Williams performance. Two of my friends posted it online within minutes of the breaking news, and I’m grateful, for it remains one of my favorite scenes from a lifetime of moviegoing. It resonates because the character, Parry, a poor and troubled soul who is searching for the Holy Grail, finds consolation in a story that is greater than himself, a story that may have given consolation to Williams during dark nights. I cannot imagine that those words, once memorized, ever stopped echoing in Williams’ mind, even if they were, in the midst of a crisis, momentarily drowned out by the voice of despair.
May God forgive all of us for our moments of failure, and grant all of us the mercy and peace that our hearts so desire.