I find myself grieving the loss of actor Robin Williams the way I would a member of my family. I’ve been puzzled by my own reaction. Like many people, I am a huge fan of his work, especially his more serious movie roles. But other actors and singers and news makers have died whose work I also admired and I didn’t feel like this There are people who pay less attention to the world of celebrities and red carpet photos than I do. But not many. There isn’t much I am less interested in than what movie star is dating what pop singer or what some actress wore to a movie premier. I couldn’t stop thinking about Robin Williams and how it’s affecting me. So I gave in and pondered and here’s what I’ve got. Robin Williams death is lodged in my heart because of depression, ministry, aging, and hope.
If Williams’ death wasn’t a suicide, it wouldn’t pain me so much. But it hurts. It strikes my soul. It’s the depression, both his and mine, that makes his passing a powerful loss. I have depression (even wrote a series of posts about it last year) as do many of my friends and colleagues in ministry. If you’re a Unitarian Universalist or a church goer of any kind, the likelihood that your minister or pastor has depression is much higher than you might think. Maybe one reason that ministry has been such a fit for me as a career is not a drive to inspire hope in others, but to continually encourage myself. I have lost friends and colleagues to suicide related to depression in the last year and I know that it may only be grace or luck that keeps me and many of my loved ones from getting to that place of pain so deep there is only one way out. If I am honest, Robbin Williams’ suicide scares me. It scares me because, well, every time we lose a battle with depression, it increases anxiety about losing the war. I am not suicidal, but I could be, as could my friend or my colleague. Like casualties in any war, when the count of the dead goes up, the soul cries “stop, no more. Stop the killing.”
Many of us who live with depression find ways to encourage others, to assist others on their journey to health and wholeness, to teach, to entertain, to provoke and inspire – it is how we combat the darkness. It’s well known now that studies seem to show creativity and mental illness, including depression are linked.
Often overlooked in this link between mental illness and depression is the connection between professions that are not overtly considered creative outlets such as teaching and ministry. While writers and musicians and actors work in fields where their creativity is at the forefront, many teachers and ministers use their proclivities for writing and/or performing in service to their vocation. Toronto Star movie critic Peter Howell says Williams was “the epitome of the clown who laughed on the outside but cried on the inside.” Chances are, if you have had or know a particularly creative and/or innovative teacher or clergy person, then that person is very likely to have a similar dark side.
Robin Williams evokes this pain about the battle with depression, not because he’s the first or most well known to die from it, but because he was one I grew up with and he played roles that deeply affected me.
I was just old enough to remember Williams as Mork from Ork, not just on Mork and Mindy, but on Happy Days – Happy Days! I was in college in 1987 the year Robin Williams found a permanent place in my heart with Dead Poet’s Society and Good Morning Vietnam. I spent eight years teaching high school and John Keating inspired me to inspire. As the struggles of adulthood set in, Sean Maguire wasn’t just counseling Will Hunting, he was talking to me, too. When I went into the ministry I began to use What Dreams May Come to inspire discussions with youth groups about the different ways human beings have envisioned life after death.
The suicide of the student in Dead Poet’s Society hits especially hard now, as does the poignancy of Walt Whitman’s (seriously, does anyone not refer to Whitman as “uncle Walt” after seeing that film?) O Captain My Captain. About the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, it’s appropriate for the actor’s death as well as the president’s because the actor played many “captains” – those who steered a principled, compassionate and human course through the often stifling and oppressive status quo. From Adrian Cronauer to John Keating to Patch Adams to Sean Maguire, to Genie, Williams was a powerful portrayer of good-hearted men (or other beings).
It’s particularly poignant that so many of his famous roles propelled stories that dealt with mental illness, suicide, and death. And yet the characters he played in these stories were nothing if not bearers of light in darkness inspiring hope. At the same time, however, this inspiration was steeped in the reality of the human condition. So even in the face of my own sadness and a very sobering respect for the dark power of depression, I look for ways to continue to bring light. I am reminded how vitally important it is to be there for others when the darkness descends and how important it is for me to reach out to others when it descends on me.