I have found it incredibly difficult to shake the death of Robin Williams these last couple of days. It’s had me thinking about depression, suicide, celebrity, my own mortality, and the pain of this world that keeps on spinning even as children die over ideological differences or the color of their skin. It’s overwhelming.
Robin Williams seemed like the kind of person who carried this kind of weight everywhere he went. His humor was lined and probably driven by a deep sorrow that can’t be known by those of us who only saw him from afar.
I thought of a few significant ways that I’ve been affected by the roles he has played in film and mostly the WAY he played them.
1. I saw some of myself in him. No one could deny that the shadows of his life made him the comic he was. While my own struggle with occasional depression is far less than what Williams dealt with, I still know what it is like to carry around a real heaviness about life. It was clear that his comedy came from this place, and it made me want to be like him in some way because he found some redemption in laughter. This was blatantly evident by the time he spent with kids in hospitals or with our military troops overseas. Countless examples of his effort to bring joy into other people’s difficulty have surfaced this week. We rarely heard about this kind of thing, but for Williams, it apparently wasn’t about getting his name in the papers.
2. I wanted to believe that he was talking to me when he addressed Will as if he were Will’s dad, calling him “sport” in Good Will Hunting. As strange as it sounds, I imagined myself in Will’s shoes in that chair throughout the movie, wondering what it would be like to have someone who spoke to me with such honesty, care, and wisdom. To some extent, his character was sitting in both chairs in that movie, only able to help another because he was working through his own pain at the same time. The same was probably true for Williams in his life outside of film and comedy.
3. In Dead Poets Society, I was inspired by what I saw as a subversive, revolutionary teacher who told us all that learning wasn’t just academic; it was personal and powerful if we open our minds. Williams’ influence over my perspective came with one of the first scenes in that movie. After a member of the class read the “Introduction to Poetry,” Williams (as Mr. Keating) looked at the room and said, “Excrement. That’s what I think of J. Evans Pritchard. We’re not laying pipe here; we’re talking about poetry!” Thus began my journey into learning about life through the arts.
The world tragically lost Robin Williams this week, but what may have stirred up the response is that we felt like we also lost Sean Maguire, the caring and authentic therapist who broke the rules to care for his patient and spoke to us about the value of vulnerability. We also lost Mr. Keating, who taught us to “make your lives extraordinary.”
I’ve had ringing in my head for years the voice of two characters played by Robin Williams. And while the writers deserve a lot of credit for the great screenplays, there is only one person who could have played those roles in a way that left such a permanent mark upon our hearts and minds.
RIP Robin Williams. Thank you for the laughter, the sorrow, and the brilliance.