Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams, Sadness, and the Lie of Success

After a day of musical rehearsing which should have been enjoyable, I got home last night feeling like I wanted to be somebody else.  I laid in bed and wondered to myself why everything has to be such an effort.  I wanted life to be easy.  Then, my wife, who was browsing Facebook, told me that Robin Williams committed suicide and I cried.

Robin Williams was not my favourite comedian, nor celebrity.  Rik Mayall died recently, for instance, whose comic work I hold in higher esteem.  While upset, I was not moved to tears.  Normally, a dead celebrity produces a shoulder shrug and a "meh".  In fact, I've spent much of my life chortling at Robin Williams' roles in sappy dramas like Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come, and that concentration camp movie, the name of which I care not to remember.  Yet I cried when he died.  Here's why.  

The first reason is obvious.  He spent so much of his life trying to cheer people with his comedy, to improve lives, and make life on earth better.  Those dramatic roles he chose were often inspirational people who taught us the importance of joy, laughter, and life.  To suicide himself seems to render his work fraudulent, like he was lying to us the whole time and in the end, sadness wins.  

It is not as simple as that.  His death should not be the entire meaning of his life.  

He battled depression.  I know what that's like.  I know what it's like to obsess over joy and sadness.  The depressed always do.  We wonder why we're not as happy as we should be, we wonder when we'll stop being sad, and we worry about the happiness ending.  An evil self-critic is constantly nattering at us.  Yet when that voice is silenced, the joy we taste is overwhelming.  Its memory sustains us through the brutal times.  I suspect, though I'll never know for sure: the non-depressed do not, and cannot, appreciate joy the way our fellowship of the sad experiences it.  

In short, he was more than just a sad clown.  Yes, that was really Robin Williams rolling on the ground, weeping and pouring gasoline on himself in Death to Smoochy.  He drew on his personal despair to make the role of "Rainbow" Randolph real, so real that many viewers were disturbed.  But that was also him in Dead Poet's Society, drawing on his energy as a nurturer, trying to help us live and see through all the bullshit that makes us unhappy.  

However, this is not what made me cry.  

What made me cry is this: Robin Williams had a huge house and tons of money.  He had talent.  He had fame.  He had children.  He had work whenever he wanted it.  He had professional respect.  His acting roles inspired and moved millions of people.  In short, he had success.  Yet he still hated himself.  

His death exposes a great lie: Success = Happiness.  I was taught that if I strove to improve myself and my lot in life, my reward would be happiness.  But it's just not true.  Wealth, fame and power did not save Robin Williams, and it cannot save me or you or anybody else.  

This is either the saddest thing ever, or the most freeing.  It's sad because I will constantly be duelling my personal demons.  But it's freeing as well, because I now see how little Success actually matters, and how little Failure matters conversely.  I can stop worrying about it.  A life of happiness can be lived without them.  This leaves me with more time to pursue actual happiness instead of stuff that doesn't matter.  

As I lay in bed last night, talking about Robin Williams with my life, I could see how easily I could die like him.  Someday, I could hate myself so much, be so full of despair and regret, that I asphyxiate myself.  If that day comes, it won't matter how famous or rich I am.  But just thinking about it has made that future seem more dim and distant.  I can be happy this instant, regardless of the success of my career.  Right now, the trees are green, the cat is fuzzy, my kid wipes the table by herself, and I love them all just a little bit more.  

When Robin Williams killed himself, he was not thinking about me or my happiness.  Yet his life and death have touched me and instructed me in a profound way that none of his movie roles ever could.  Thank you and farewell, O Captain, my Captain.