What Robin Williams Taught Me...

The news of Robin Williams’ death seems to have struck so many people. I have numerous conversations with people who’ve commented in one way or another that they’ve taken it "surprisingly hard.” It’s strange how we can feel such a deep emotional connection to someone whom most of us have never met. It almost feels silly to say that with Robin’s death, I became more sensitive to my own fragility. But I know that many feel this way. It is truly a gift.

Reading everyone’s experiences of Mr Williams has really made me start thinking about my own. Of course, his portrayal of characters like Peter Banning/Pan, Patch Adams, Mrs Doubtfire, and as psychiatrist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting have played a role in my developmental thinking. But what really captured me about him was his standup comedy.

For years, I had been intrigued by standup comedians. I find what they do to be outstandingly artistic and courageous…When done well, of course. Robin Williams especially peaked my interest because he had become such a successful actor yet continued to perform standup. That seemed odd and outstanding to me because most comedians-turned-actors used standup as a means to an end rather than an end. Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, and Eddie Murphy all stopped doing standup once they made it big, which says something about the grueling nature of standup. It also gives me profound respect for people like Seinfeld, Louis C.K., and of course, Robin Williams. He had always seemed to me as someone who was an especially conscious artist, who gave a great deal of consideration and thought to his life and work. I’m drawn to those types of people because of how clearly I feel it portrays the nature of God, even when what they’re creating may not resemble anything we’d consider to be God-like (the same could be said about some of God’s own creation, so it’s best to look harder).

In 2002, Williams released Robin Williams: Live on Broadway and I purchased it right away. I’ve watched it at least a dozen times, studying his rhythm, phrasing, and subtle nuance. One of the most captivating bits for me is when he begins talking about Jesus, religion, and his being Episcopalian, which he jokingly refers to as “Catholic Lite: You get all the religion, but with just half the guilt!” Knowing him to be such a thoughtful, creative, and artistic person, I was enthralled to know more about his faith. He goes on to spout out funny and poignant observations about our faith at a rapid-fire pace, but that wasn’t enough for me. I began listening throughout his entire act (and body of work) for expressions and indications of his faith.

While he was telling and acting out sex and fart jokes, I was listening and looking for signs and expressions of Williams’ faith and relationship with God. Most adult Christians I knew wouldn't sit through it without being repulsed and offended, but he helped me to learn to seek and be present to what is below the surface. This may be one of the greatest lessons and works of my Christian faith and I've never stopped striving to mature in this way. How can we love and be present to a God who is all, in all and through all (Ephesians 4.6) if our practice is to constantly avoid people, circumstances, or behaviors?

Monday evening Shawna and I turned on the evening news for the first time since we got cable over a month ago and newscasters were speaking about Robin in the past-tense. It seemed illogical that he would’ve died so I asked out loud, “Was? Had? Did he die??” And a few seconds later, it was clearly stated. A few moments after that they announced it was being investigated as a suicide. He was 63. Was. It still hurts to write in the past-tense.

I still return to the lesson he taught me. While his suicide is heartbreaking and genuinely tragic, I keep wanting to find something beneath it. Now, being in a position to so clearly see how severe his life-long struggle has been it puts all of his extravagant generosity and kindness to others in a new light. I am still inspired by the man’s faith and relationship with God and so devastatingly heartbroken over his relationship with himself.

Thank you, Mr Williams. May you rest in peace and your family recover with the memory of your love.