Genie, I Wish You Free

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.

How could anyone that loved by so many people not be happy?ROBIN-WILLIAMS

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.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “Genie, I Wish You Free

  1. Beautifully written, Dave. Depression is a disease most people don’t understand. For those who have never dealt with it personally, there is no way to know how debilitating it can be. It goes far beyond feeling sad or blue. Depression can hijack a life and paralyze a person, making even the most basic tasks impossible. Getting out of bed, picking the kids up from school and interacting with people becomes overwhelming. I speak from experience having dealt with it all my life. For those close to me, the signs are very clear, others have a harder time discerning there is anything wrong.

    Depression can be caused by a chemical imbalance and helped a great deal with the right medication. Often there are other factors that come into play exacerbating the condition. Depression hits people of all ages from teenagers to adults, at any time. Some of the first noticeable symptoms are the inability to get out of bed in the morning, no matter how much sleep you get. Excessive sleeping or napping throughout the day. Eating too much or not at all. Withdrawing from friends and family. Symptoms of depression last longer than two weeks. Everyone has a bad day or feels sad, that does not qualify as depression. Telling someone who is clinically depressed to, Cheer Up or Get Over It, does not help. If we could cheer up, we would. If we could get over it, we’d try. We can pretend to be happy, and often times will, to make you feel better. We can even pull it off for a time. Likely, Robin Williams felt compelled to ‘put on a happy face’ for those around him. It was expected of him. But it doesn’t last long and only makes us feel more tired having to use the limited energy we have to appease those around us. Because my sense of humor is so much a part of who I am, I understand how Robin Williams could have masked the depth of his despair so easily. I also understand how sad and alone he must have felt, even when surrounded by people who loved him.

    Fortunately, depression is treatable. Most of the time mine is under control and I’ve come to recognize when I need to reach out for help or give myself the rest I need. Limiting stress, accepting help and love from others goes a long way in my ability to stay in the light. My hope for anyone who suffers from depression is to know, even in the darkest place, that help is available. Even when people around you can’t understand you, they still love and care about you. Depression tells you life is not worth living. That is the cruelest trick the disease plays on you.

    These days a family doctor can prescribe medication, seek out a physician immediately and if you need extra counseling, get that as well, but get the symptoms under control. Most medication helps within 7-10 days, and you will feel more like yourself quicker than you think. You are not weak, you have a disease. You are not crazy or worthless, even if you feel like you are.
    It may be cliche to say good will come out of Robin Williams death, but good will come. Depression is uncomfortable to talk about and carries unnecessary shame, but we are talking about it. I think Robin Williams would be okay with that.

    • Thanks, Sheri. I think what you wrote is already proof something good can come out of this tragedy. Thanks for your transparency and insight!