This morning as I awoke, the thoughts of Robin Williams’ death barged into my mind again. I’d never met him, but like millions around the world, his apparent suicide has left me troubled as if he were a family member. This is one we all feel more than we logically should.
Did anyone not love Robin Williams?
Our grief seems pretentious – truly only family and close friends knew him, if anyone did. Yet we feel we’ve lost a friend. For a man so filled with apparent joy, his passing brings questions that bother us.
The obvious answer is to point to his continued battle with depression and substance abuse, both of which are serious and life-threatening. Then we learned he not only was suffering from Parkinson’s disease but also a form of progressive dementia (diffuse Lewy body dementia).
He wasn’t alone – he had a family who evidently loved him very much. He had warm friendships with many gifted people we’d all love to know. News came out last month he was in treatment for addiction, but that was a struggle he had always acknowledged transparently. Yet with all he had going for him, including a loving support system and the collective admiration of the world, it wasn’t enough.
One thing performers realize is that the love of an audience is thrilling only for a time. When the audience goes home, you’re left with who you really are. Those who look on adoringly never realize talent is as much a responsibility as a gift. One thing repeated by the endless talking heads on TV has been how he was always “on”, joking and entertaining anyone near him. While that seems lovable, it’s also evidence of someone with an insatiable need to please.
That need, while so entertaining for us, may have been a curse for him.
It’s always surprised me how people react to my piano-playing. No, I’m not the musical equivalent of Robin Williams – far from it – but I play a pretty good piano. I can’t count the number of people who’ve come up to me and said, “Boy, I’d give anything to do that. It must be a thrill to be able to play beautiful music any time you want!”
Well, sort of…but not how you think. Creative performance is fun for the performer in about the same way your golf game is fun for you. You get in a zone focused on one thing, you forget about your other problems for a while, and the people with you have a good time together. But it is not the transformative, transcendent experience non-musicians think it is.
Join me in the orchestra pit of the next show I play and look at the bored expressions on the musician’s faces. No transcendence, just guys doing their craft, same as any other craft. Sure, we take pride in doing it well, and there are moments of fun when we get to play something we like. But that’s it, so stop beating yourself up for quitting piano lessons. You played football, I played piano. Not much is different except that my knees probably work better than yours now.
The Bible talks about the key to happiness in a stunningly simple way:
“God gives some people the ability to enjoy the wealth and property he gives them, as well as the ability to accept their state in life and enjoy their work. They do not worry about how short life is, because God keeps them busy with what they love to do.” (Ecclesiastes 5:19-20)
So it would appear the key to happiness is a matter of focus and acceptance. You focus on the things you enjoy and not on your failures and the fact that the clock is running out. But talent, fame, money? Those have little effect.
I’m not saying Williams didn’t know that truth, nor am I offering him up as a cautionary tale. I loved him probably as much as you did.
I am saying his life is a reminder to us never to presume people are OK, just because they have a lot going for them. Like Robin, we’re all fragile and need purpose in life. That purpose is found in the simple things, not the flashy ones. So after we’ve taken time to mourn his passing and pray for his family, let’s remember to stay focused on the things in our own lives that matter and forget the ones that don’t.
And let’s remember that the gifted, funny person sitting next to us may actually need some encouragement. When you look at someone, you rarely see the battle going on behind their eyes. So…tread carefully, and always be kind.
Rest well, Robin. We’ll miss you.