I still remember the first night I saw Robin Williams’ magic at work in Mork and Mindy. I must have been just 10 years old, and my brothers and I had come home from our weekly evening out at Ukrainian folk dancing and activities. My Mum had recorded the première of a new TV show – Mork and Mindy. We’d seen his guest spot in Happy Days and knew there was more to come. “You have to watch this!” she told us. My brothers and I watched the oddball performance of the multicoloured alien, Mork, and then spent half an hour afterwards running around twitching our ears and saying, “Nanu Nanu!” We gleefully mimicked throwing eggs into the air, with a courageous shout of “Fly! Be Free!”. “I knew you’d love it!” exclaimed my delighted Mum.
Robin Williams was a one of a kind talent – part comic, part tragic player, or perhaps I should say all of both. Known the world over, he made hundreds of millions of people laugh and cry, with his mad-cap stream-of-consciousness improvisations and imitations, along with his earnest and deep portrayals in a number of meaningful film roles. And then there were the interviews where he openly shared his engulfment within depression and addiction.
But unlike other ‘whirling dervish’, ‘genius’ players, you never heard about Robin Williams being mean-spirited towards others, throwing excruciating tantrums on set or demanding that people fill his bathtub with Perrier so that he could be ‘in the flow’. Instead, you heard about his generosity in an industry not known for its generosity of spirit. And you laughed when he went on a riff.
It’s sad that, in the midst of being one of the most recognised individuals on the planet, adored from afar by millions and acclaimed for his gifts and talents, that he never could completely shake off the doldrums of depression and the addictions that ruined some of his relationships and his sense of self in the world.
One has to believe that he often thought that he was only as good as his last manic impersonations and jokes, that the laughter, although earned, was still in response to something he did and not in camaraderie with who he was, deep down; that sense that operates in so many people that despite the fact that they’ve ‘made it’, that they’re still not connected to others in a genuine way – without ego, without semblance, without seeking a reward – simply to be.
People can feel separated from others in many ways. Leaders can say that they are ‘alone with the burden of leadership’. Carers can feel that they are ‘alone in their sacrifice’. Pioneers can believe that they are ‘out there alone, forging the way’. And people can try to supplant their dismal feelings with artificial rewards and stimulants – fame, money, power, success, adulation, praise and prominence, drugs, alcohol and self-inflicted pain. But in the end, we all need to simply ‘be’ in deep connection with those around us. Fame, wealth and approbation won’t bring satisfaction and deep-seated contentment any more than it did Robin Williams.
So be open and real with those around you and if you feel alone or depressed or anxious, don’t try to ride it out alone. Seek and accept the help of others. Dark times come to all, but then so does the light. Stopping while you are in the depths of blackness means that you will miss out on the brightness to come. That was part of the genius of this tragic comic – both the dark and the light expressed so forcefully through one person.
Sadly, obviously, Williams was alone at the end when he acted to end his time in this life. It is a sadness for his family, almost too terrible to contemplate. And that, for those of us who have been close to others who suffer or are suffering, is a lesson: they need us to be with them, to accept them for who they are and what they feel, to be with them through trials, and to simply lend them courage by being with them and showing them that we need them, want them and value them and their struggles. We must simply ‘be’ together.
Suicide inflicts terrible pain on those around the person who takes his or her life. It’s not something you do just to yourself, but to those close to you as well. His family will be devastated and possibly guilt-ridden, despite the fact that they did not do the act. So if we ever have the chance, let’s encourage others to turn away from despair and into safety with others, sparing all the pain.
In the meantime, for all of those who ever had a laugh or a compassionate tear prompted by him, let’s spare a thought or a prayer for the loved ones he has left behind, and remember Robin Williams for the good that he did. May he rest, finally, in peace and may his family know some too.
- Peter J. McLean