On Twitter, @LAcrush wrote: “Somewhere, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles and Ethan Hawke, step up on a table.”
I am 37 years-old, and Robin Williams has made me laugh every year I’ve been alive. Through humor, he taught me lots of things.
In fact, I first learned what comedy is because of him. I remember “turning the knob” on the TV to watch “Mork & Mindy” re-runs. Living in an egg looked so cool! And when I was ten, it was my father’s impersonation of him in “Good Morning Vietnam” that tickled me to the floor. Young Gen-Xers around the country found themselves learning about a war that was too new to be in history textbooks but too important to be ignored.
I still smile when I think of why we can’t wish for more wishes, how it is I know what a Welsh accent sounds like, and how I learned who “Fosse, Fosse, Fosse” was long before Beyonce’ taught the single ladies.*
Perhaps one of the most transformative movies I have ever seen was “Dead Poets Society.” It inspired an entire generation—mine.
As a young teen, the movie lit up a part of my brain that has never quite settled down since. It helped me understand the love of words I felt inside, and it helped articulate why I felt a burning drive to work with them–why it is I would do things like write a blog post about a man I have never met with thoughts that are probably far from unique.
Now, sometimes when writing, I cross out the terrible, boring words on the pages of my manuscript, and I hear Professor Keating telling me to dig deeper, “that I may contribute a verse.”
All of this, of course, is about the significance of Robin Williams’ life and the impact of his gift.
But what of the significance of his passing in the way he passed?
We pray for his family.
We consider the important pieces on the Internet that discuss the very real (measurably real) challenge of clinical depression, as well as ways to find help. (I hope you read them.)
And even as we absorb all the information… as we train our minds to think the way we ought to think about depression, and we pray the prayers that must be said, our hearts may be tempted to ask different questions.
When someone who has been a source of joy leaves like this, the Great Contradiction can seem overwhelming. We try to understand it as an outsider.
We wonder, maybe, did Robin Williams ever feel any of the happiness he gave us? While I can’t presume to know his heart, I have to argue that, yes, he had great happiness in his life, too. His work testifies to it, and that’s just the part we see. The nature of happiness testifies to it, too.
Happiness is not a goal in life that is either achieved or missed as if it were a game of darts. It is a blessing. We can work for it, and should. We can pray for it, and should. But whether or not we possess it in a given moment does not determine whether our lives have value. Whether or not Robin Williams left this earth in happiness or not does not steal the joy he had while here, or the joy he left for us. If we are having trouble finding happiness in the moment, it does not undermine the goodness we’ve also experienced in the past. Our story will have a next chapter. The story that matters is the whole story. And in that there is hope.
Second, we may wonder how a man who has so much—who has it all—could be sad. This reveals a misconception, not only about depression, but also about life.
The temptation before all of us is to believe in the promise of the false positive. If we just get to a certain point in our lives—if we can just land the job, the house, the relationship, the achievement—then, then, then all will be ok.
We have to reject this thinking, not only because it’s so far from true, but also because it keeps us from extending compassion to those we think have it all and don’t need our love. They do.
In these hard moments, when the false positive presents itself as a solution that never seems to quite arrive, God reminds us that He is our safety. We are reminded that it isn’t “having it all” or even finding a version of happiness that is our true purpose in life. These things may be nice. But our purpose and our rock is in the person of Jesus Christ. I cling to him when I am happy and I am sad, alike, because he is our assurance, our joy, our peace. He gives compassion. He doesn’t leave, even in our darkest hours, even if we despair in the face of his love. He stays with us.
We remember that, every day, people are overcoming depression, defeating suicidal thoughts, and finding joy again. I know and love people who have found victory. If you’re reading this and need to know victory is possible, it is.
So when I think of the life of Robin Williams, I am going to remember all the joy he brought, all the things he taught, and the lessons I can take from his passing–all together. I am going to remember the hope that we must cling to is bigger than what we see or understand. I am going to remember not to take for granted that anyone in my life may be in need of compassion. And I am going to remember that even in his darkest hour, God was with him.
At the end of Dead Poets Society, the students saw their teacher was getting fired. They stood on their desks to honor him, anyway. They used the words he taught them, “O Captain! My Captain!”
The beauty of this scene is that it didn’t matter that they did this. In the story, Professor Keating doesn’t get to keep his job. He gives the boys a nod, his thanks, because he knows they’ve learned from him.
If we wish to honor the work of Robin Williams and the joy he brought us, we won’t let the last scene define his life. We’ll stand to thank him even if it won’t change the ending.
Nicole Quigley is the author of Like Moonlight at Low Tide, a recommended teen read by USA Today and winner of the ACFW’s “Carol Award” for young adult fiction. Her debut novel focuses on overcoming bulling and coping with the suicide of a loved one.
*In order of references: Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, and The Bird Cage.
To learn more about depression and how to help individuals in suicidal crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can find great counselors through the American Association of Christian Counselors at www.aacc.net and 1.800.526.8673.