“It is both a blessing and a curse to feel everything so very deeply.”
I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a while, but I needed a day or two to see the response from the world before responding myself. The responses have varied. Most people are surprised, and very many genuinely upset. Some people have been asking, “how could he do this, when he was surrounded by so much love?” A girl on my Facebook feed posted something along the lines of, “How could someone so damn funny be so depressed?!” And she wasn’t the only one. There was an article labeled, “Robin Williams Didn’t Die from a Disease, He Died from His Choice.” The former statement of which is false, and the latter of which is true.
The death of Robin Williams hit the world perhaps harder than most celebrity deaths because, I think, it offered a mirror in which we can see ourselves. It made us ask – and answer- a lot of questions, about ourselves and about society. It pointed to the fact that our society has a very long way to go in recognizing, addressing, tolerating, and accepting depression and other forms of mental health issues.
I want to touch on all of these problems, but I’m going to begin with the only way I know to interact and name my world- through the words of others. Earlier yesterday I was reading the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, and I came across a passage that made me think immediately of Williams.
In this particular scene, Sojourner Truth (then still Isabella, and still a slave) is visiting her father from whom she is separated. He is dying, and she entreats him to live:
(Her father begins the dialogue)
“‘…why should I live and not die?’ Isabella, whose heart yearned over her father, and who would have made any sacrifice to have been able to be with, and take care of him, tried to comfort, by telling him that ‘she had heard the white folks say, that all the slaves in the State would be freed in ten years, and that then she would come and take care of him.’ ‘I would take just as good care of you as Mau-mau would, if she was here’- continued Isabel. ‘Oh, my child,’ replied he, ‘I cannot live that long.’ ‘Oh do, daddy, do live, and I will take such good care of you,’ was her rejoinder. She now says, ‘Why, I thought then, in my ignorance, that he could live, if he would. I just as much thought so, as I ever thought any thing in my life – and I insisted on his living: but he shook his head, and insisted that he could not.'”
Sometimes, it’s just hard for these people to keep walking through the world with no end in sight to their suffocation. I’ve had this discussion with other people, that often the most depressed people are the most intelligent. Most artists are crazy- and there’s a reason. There’s a reason Van Goh cut his ear off. There’s a reason Alexander McQueen- one of the most brilliant artists of our time- committed suicide. For the same reason Robin Williams did.
You can’t just will yourself to live another minute when you feel like the very place you live in is the reason you feel the way you do. A lot of people who are depressed simply understand the world better. They understand people better, they understand emotions better, and so they see and feel their pain, but they also see and feel the pain of everyone else around them.
“There is a kind of crying I hope you have not experienced, and it is not just crying about something terrible that has happened, but a crying for all of the terrible things that have happened, not just to you but to everyone you know and to everyone you don’t know and even the people you don’t want to know, a crying that cannot be diluted by a brave deed or a kind word, but only by someone holding you as your shoulders shake and your tears run down your face.”
And sometimes, they just get overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the fact that they see it and they understand it and they know they can do nothing about it, and that everyone’s hurting because it’s part of the human experience to feel pain.
The very act of being human becomes a painful reality.
People say that he wasn’t strong, that he was weak, and that he could have lived if only he had fought harder. That perhaps makes me the most angry. Robin Williams fought hard for sixty-three years. That’s six decades worth of daily fighting. Daily waiting for sleep to come so that maybe in the morning he’d wake up and it would be a little bit better. That maybe he’d wake up to a smiling sun and a warm world, instead of another version of the sad suffocation of yesterday.
They say it wasn’t a disease, which is wrong. Depression- true depression- is a sickness like any other, and one that takes strength, every day, to overcome. They say it was his choice. It was. It was a choice that he made after a long battle with something that was too strong for him.
“So you must choose…are you a child who has not yet become world-weary?”
Did you really look at him in his interviews, in his comedy routines, and his movie roles? If you really look at him, you can see his tortured soul in his eyes. In the way his mouth is pinched and his eyes crinkled, as if every moment he’s trying not to cry? You can literally see the pain emanating from his body. And what’s more heartbreaking is that he is still trying to make people laugh. He is still trying to help others find good in this world.
And you know why that is? It’s because he knows how much pain he’s in, every minute of every day, and he only wanted to take that pain away from someone else for just a little bit. He only wanted to give someone the relief that he never could find- if only for a moment.
What’s more sad is that no one could, in the end, give that to him.
You often find that the most depressed people are the kindest, and that’s because they understand, truly understand, on such a deep level. They know. And they cannot continue knowing after a while, after all of the knowledge has stacked up, after they have hundreds of layers of stories, of narratives, of pain, layers of phyllo pain, a baklava that does not taste sweet to the tongue or to the soul.
“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living…” -Marx
I am sad because his life was a “little parenthesis of eternity” that was filled with a deep sadness no hug, no friend, no amount of love, could fill. I am happy, though, because he has escaped the cage, escaped the manacle. I know why the caged bird sings- the caged bird sings of freedom.
Today, he flies. And he is happy.
It is worth noting, however, that the world is not sad at his passing. Has the world, collectively, mourned the deaths of those killed in the past months in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Palestine, Israel, and West Africa as ardently as they have the single death of Robin Williams?
They mourn not because they have lost a human being- that is nothing but commonplace in our world.
They mourn because someone who seemed so happy has lost a hidden battle. They mourn because they look around and wonder which smiling face around them is fighting the same battle. Which one might not be here someday. They mourn because they look inside themselves and wonder at their sadness, and wonder if it, too, is perhaps so deadly.
They mourn because intelligence and power and money and fame have proven that they are not a cure for unhappiness.
They mourn because humanity is fallible, even when it has everything- they mourn for the simple reason that Robin William’s death has proven that people can have everything, and still have nothing at all.