Robin Williams is Dead. Does that Mean We Win?

Robin Williams is Dead. Does that Mean We Win? August 13, 2014


I confess. I haven’t been all that interested in the obsessive coverage of Robin Williams’ death.

My feelings about Mr Williams before his death were generally positive but mostly disinterested. I enjoyed his movies and wished him well.

I knew, as soon as I heard that he had died, that we would be in for another of these 24/7 whatevers that the media does when someone famous dies. Sure enough, I flipped briefly to the news last night, and I saw a talking head interviewing one person after another eulogizing Mr Williams.

I don’t want to say anything bad, negative or dismissive about Robin Williams, his tragic suicide, or the hell his family and the few people who truly loved him must be going through right now. I’m also not going to say anything faux profound about depression or suicide.

What I do want to write about is one thing: Why?

Why do we go into these orgies of obsession every time someone famous dies?

It is so predictable and so bizarre that I am beginning to think that these griefathons serve some sort of purpose for us as individuals. The media is consistent about intoning gravely that we are engaging in a “national mourning” and then carpet-bombing our senses with what begins as worshipful eulogies spiced with titillating details about how the person died, and finishes with sordid details about their personal failures and picadillos.

It’s a script. The media follows it like a cooking recipe, and we eat it up like it was dessert.

What’s the purpose? I don’t mean the obvious purpose of getting ratings and a kind of prurient interest in other people’s pain, but what is the real purpose for this obsessive and downright irrational behavior?

And it is irrational. Because, my friends, you didn’t know Robin Williams. You didn’t know Michael Jackson. Or Sonny Bono. Or Princess Diana. Or Marilyn Monroe.

You didn’t know any of them.

They were two-dimensional representations of themselves on big screens and little screens and videos to you. This does not belie the fact that they were people and that other people loved them deeply and suffered the extremes of grief and emotional dislocation when they died.

But the fact is, you are not one of those people. You did not know them. You did not love them. Before their passing, you did not even think about them all that much.

But the minute they die, we focus on them and the endless blabbing about their “contribution,” “genius,” and their saintliness begins and goes on for days and weeks until we finally wear it out and turn to something else.

We stop working, stop talking to our families, stop thinking about paying the bills and taking the dog for a walk, just plain stop our lives and sit transfixed in front of the tube watching hour after hour of celebrities being interviewed by talking heads who are themselves celebrities, saying the same trite things over and over about the newly departed. We are like spotlighted deer, staring at the images of this person we didn’t know and pushing ourselves to a kind of vicarious grief over their death.

Later, as the inevitable take-down starts and the tawdry details of their lives drip through, we extend the obsession into fascination and tut-tut our way through more wasted time and energy.

What’s going on here? People give whole days and weeks of their lives over to emotion about someone they never met, and then turn around in six months or a year when another big celebrity dies and do it again.

What are they getting out of it? What beast in the subterranean oozy places of our minds is this feeding?

Maybe it stems from that thing we know but don’t really believe: Our own mortality. Does this have something to do with an affirmation that Robin Williams/Michael Jackson/Sonny Bono/Princess Diana/Marilyn Monroe are dead … but we are alive?

Is this a backdoor way of dealing with the fact that we are all going to die and that this knowledge haunts us all of our living days? Robin Williams threw away the one thing that any of us ever truly possesses: His life. He refused years of living.

I don’t want to say anything about suicide or depression. I have no deep thoughts to add to that conversation. But it is a fact that Robin Williams revoked his own lease on life. He gave up what most people would fight with everything they had to keep: Life.

I have no doubt that this titillates us.

But what makes it writ large is that he had everything that the gods of this world have taught us makes life worth living. He was a success on an international scale. He was up there as high as you can get in his very public profession; one of the handful out of the billions who walk this planet today. He had more money than we can count and the adulation of millions. He had everything we have been taught to spend our lives striving to get; every “if only” we think would make us happy and fill the holes in us that keep us awake at night.

That fascinates because if affirms in a silent sort of way that maybe all those things we’ve been taught to want and never got — the fame, success, endless money and pretty young things on our arms — don’t matter all that much after all. If the rich and famous can tumble to our feet like this, then maybe we aren’t missing all that much. Maybe we’re more ok than the same media that is now riveting us to Robin Williams’ death tells us we are.

Maybe our old jalopy and our two-bedroom house with the leaky faucet and our humdrum jobs that bore us to tears and our sadistic bosses from hell aren’t all that bad after all.

Because there’s this: He/She/They are dead. And we’re not.

Maybe the fascination lies in the fact that if the richest and most successful among us can die by their own excesses or even their own deliberate intent, then, maybe, in spite of all their glitzy success and our lackluster workaday lives, we, in fact, win.

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26 responses to “Robin Williams is Dead. Does that Mean We Win?”

  1. Reminiscent of these words:

    It was just about this time that some
    people arrived and told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled
    with that of their sacrifices. 2 At this
    he said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans
    were worse sinners than any others, that this should have happened to
    them? 3 They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will
    all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower at Siloam fell, killing
    them all? Do you suppose that they were more guilty than all the other people
    living in Jerusalem? 5 They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will
    all perish as they did.’ Luke 13:1-5 (NJB)

  2. We stop working, stop talking to our families, stop thinking about
    paying the bills and taking the dog for a walk, just plain stop our
    lives and sit transfixed in front of the tube watching hour after hour
    of celebrities being interviewed by talking heads who are themselves
    celebrities, saying the same trite things over and over about the newly

    You must know a very different set of people than those I know.

    Nobody, and I mean nobody, that I know behaves as you describe above.

    I’m not saying that nobody out there does behave like that, but I wish you wouldn’t use ‘we’ to suggest that this is normative behavior that most people indulge in – because it isn’t.

  3. Yes, we win! But perhaps not until we get over whatever obsession we have with glamor and realize we are the real people.

  4. I’ve said this elsewhere, I might as well copy and paste it here too. I was saddened when I heard. He was a genius but above all he seemed to have a really good heart. His comedy was not one of tearing people or things or institutions down but of a sudden enlightment. There was a gentleness in his comedy. I thought I had read somewhere he had some depression problems, but I had not heard about his alcohol and drug use and his finacial problems. Whenever I come across someone who commits suicide from a despair, either stemming from a clinical depression or from just giving up, I get the wish to have hugged them and tell them beforehand that whatever the problem it can be addressed and fixed. No problem is that great to end one’s life. May he now rest in peace.

  5. True, most of us never met any of the famous folks who have died. I will admit that when I heard Princess Diana died, I burst into tears, it was early on a weekend morning, we were listening to NPR. I have no idea why it hit me hard—I obviously never knew her. She was young and her death violent and she left 2 beautiful children. Robin Williams, an actor I admired and whose work I enjoyed, as everyone knew, dealt with demons his whole life and obviously it was too much. (having a family member who deals with this makes a difference in my outlook too).. Personally I can’t imagine leaving this mortal coil on purpose. However, I do not suffer from depression. Robin helped bring laughter to many who needed it, and seemed to have lost himself in his more serious acting thus making the role more authentic. No, I didn’t cry, but he was (and I guess this is what you meant about being caught up in famous deaths) a genius in the acting and comedy world. It is interesting to me that many in the acting profession have “demons” . As for the others you mentioned—-no special reaction to their deaths. I think many regular folks need someone to admire outside their normal acquaintances and those in the field of entertainment fill that bill.

  6. I agree. I hope it does lead to serious discussion about addiction and depression. I would also add that I hope it leads the medical community to more research and discovery of something that can help.

    As soon as I heard, the televisons went off here. My tolerance for the media blitz on anything has become very low. I will use any excuse to have tv free time but I especially enforce it when it’s a subject that doesn’t need to be obsessed upon.

    pagansister – I burst into tears about Princess Di. I was puzzled by my reaction too. It is sad that she’s not here now to be Grandma to baby.

  7. Manny, that was a beautiful tribute to a good man. I, too, was sad. Yes, may he now rest in peace. It seems that much of his life wasn’t peaceful, and he hid a lot of that very well. He did leave a wonderful body of work for generations to see.

  8. Lauren Bacall also just died. May she RIP. But, because she died of natural causes, presumably, being 89 years old, most people are good with it. In both cases, a human being died. But, because she was old, and did not take her own life.. then no one, or at least the media, gives her more than a passing nod. It sure seems like we are only interested in folks who die “early” for whatever reason. I see a rather scary attitude that folks should die when they are of no use to the rest of us.Lauren Bacall was no longer in our headlights as a stunningly beautiful woman..or as a fine Who cares? I am disgusted.

  9. Comedy and the arts are big in our house so we cried… And prayed… Loved each other and kept on. I’m still getting over Okie James Garner… Didn’t know him or Robin but loved the gifts God gave them. Tried once to hire Garner for voice over but he was ill. Was lucky to get James Earl Jones to read a Carl Sandburg poem for a prairie video. He was lovely. We didn’t keep in touch but for one special hour I got to work with an incredible orator on a labor of love project on one of God’s great landscapes. I think it’s okay to honor the gifts God bestows on his people and try harder with the people we know that he places around us to love and help. Sometimes that can include sharing a good joke, song or verse. I named my daughter after Maya Angelou so it’s a rough year for this fan.

  10. I think a part of it speaks to the alienation media places in our lives. We don’t know our own neighbor, but we think we know Robin Williams from his movies better?

  11. I think you are over-thinking this. Williams’ death effects me in the same way as any other death of someone I know of but do not know. The difference is that Williams was known of by hundrends of millions of people. So instead of a few a dozen sympathy notes sent to the family you get a few million comments on the internet. It just a matter of scale. The fact that it was a suicide does make more shocking, but so it would if it was the guy down your street that you see often, but have never spoken to. It that case, you’d be shocked too, but I wouldn’t because I’ve never heard of the guy. In the case of Williams, everyone is shocked because everyone knew who he was.

  12. Lauren Bacall was a beautiful, classy lady and a wonderful actress. Always enjoy seeing her films. And like peggy-o above, James Garner was a favorite of mine. I think the reaction to someone, famous or not, who died young is we know or realize how much they missed out on so much that a longer life can bring. And yes, circumstances revolving about the death brings different reactions too. Apparently a death other than “natural” brings curiosity. I don’t think there is a trend at this point that folks should die when they are no longer of use to us.

  13. It;s just a different kind of grief, requiring different methods of processing. Lauren Bacall isn’t less valuable, but her death didn’t shock the system in the way the Robin Williams’ death did. In the same way, the death of one’s child would be devastating in a way the death of an elderly grandparent is not.

  14. Robin Williams made a movie in the mid 90’s called what dreams may come…It was a story about a man killed in a car accident who is heaven and he decides to leave because his wife is in hell for committing suicide…It deals with the illusions of life…much of it is ridiculous but can’t help but feel the poignant irony and eerie omen it now presents…..

  15. It’s in our culture to love celebrities. And why shouldn’t we be saddened? His genius has made us laugh countless times, and now we are robbed of it. It’s a fact that our lives are a tiny bit less enjoyable now that he’s gone. True, the media attention is overkill, but I won’t let it bother me. It’s simply a part of our culture.

  16. Having watched 2 family members ultimately die from that, I suspect that recent diagnosis didn’t help the depression demons. It’s so very sad.

  17. This is really spot-on, thank you. Breath of fresh air.

    On a different topic, I can’t seem to find contact info for you—wanted to chat a bit about your relocation to Patheos from a site, as I’m considering a relocation to the Evangelical channel but have been spooked by some articles about free-hosting wordpress redirects. I’d be grateful if you could shoot me a private note.

  18. Esther, I couldn’t help you since I don’t even understand what you’re talking about. 🙂 When I moved to Patheos, the Patheos IT people did all the heavy lifting. Sorry.

  19. I agree, Sus_1. Princess Di would have been overjoyed at the birth of little Prince George. Being the grandmother to what will probably be my only grandchild, a 4 1/2 yr old boy, I know what she has missed.

  20. Many have commented, correctly, that we are taken in shock when a young person dies and, especially when they die of unnatural causes, i.e. Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, John Kennedy, Sr. and Jr. Let me remind you…Robin Williams was not young…he was nearly 20 years older than JFK was when he died. I think the obsession with Robin’s death is becoming embarrassing and self-indulgent, especially now that we have an American journalist who was beheaded by ISIS with a kitchen knife over seven long minutes. Let’s get our priorities straight. I met and spoke with Robin Williams at a party in 1981 and, as engaging and wonderful as he was in movies, he was nothing like that in person. He was completely wrapped up in himself and unable to connect on a human level with anyone in the room. I was saddened, but not shocked, when I read that he killed himself. It’s a tragedy but it pales in comparison to all that is going on in the world right now.

  21. Leave the soul alone, and pray for not just him and his family but for yourselves and yours as well. One death is too much yet to the media and the war industry….BAD and nothing more. Suck