The Death of a Robin: Robin Williams and Eternal Vigilance against Pain

Robin Williams’ death has been a surprise for many of us.

However, I wasn’t terribly shocked.

The man definitely seemed like a person with joy, enthusiasm and excitement. He certainly had a unique perspective on things and was a wonderful personality. He touched millions.

What people fail to realize is that there is great wisdom in the idea of la tragedia and la comedia.

Comedians often have a psychotic, neurotic or depressive personality structure. They view the world with some passion (including negative and painful passion) and often use humor as an outlet. Patton Oswalt has been very clear about his battles with depression. David Cross has made jokes about mild depression, but it’s probably still accurate to say that he does suffer from it. Louis C.K. is obviously someone who views the world with the colors turned down and the sounds muted at times. When you’re hurting, laughter is good medicine. When you hurt all the time, sharing that laughter is a good job.

Friends of mine have suggested that Williams may have been an undiagnosed or partially diagnosed manic-depressive. It’s possible. I think that it’s important we stop thinking in terms of simple, easy labels and start really trying to grapple with the unique nature of each personality.

There was always a melancholy to Robin Williams’ work. I love Good Morning Vietnam. That movie takes a right-hand turn into very serious issues after being a fun Robin Williams trek. Mrs. Doubtfire, Garp, Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo… almost every movie on Williams’ list has touches of serious sadness and issues. It’s probably why he handled the transition to more serious roles fairly well. It’s easy to look at Robin Williams as the Genie from Aladdin, this spritely and endlessly happy figure, but that’s not true to human beings.

There’s some evidence that the earliest stages of Parkinson’s may have impacted Robin Williams’ apparent decision for suicide. There is also some evidence that the 2009 open heart surgery impacted him.

Many people I know take this as a call for better mental health infrastructure and treatment. Anyone who knows me is aware that this is an issue I am passionate about. I am tired of looking around and seeing people screaming in silence in their own internal cages. We have the tools to finally begin to grapple with the fundamental human pains that the moral philosophers like Socrates and the Buddha tried to get at.

But I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how mental health operates that has to be addressed.

Robin Williams’ success, family, money, and adoration was not sufficient to give him true resilience, it seems. (I say all of this as an outside observer, using him more as a symbol of a pattern I have seen elsewhere). We can see from this case that a man who talks about his wife being the love of his life and the thing that keeps him going may still succumb. True, eternal happiness is very rare in this world, and it’s not granted by any kind of wonderful life circumstances. Buddhism and Christianity both teach this fundamental lesson: The things of the world don’t grant us happiness.

When someone is in depression, the slightest things can set them to self-destructive behavior. Perhaps Williams’ open-heart surgery made him start thinking about mortality and his career. Zelda is growing up: She’s 25 now, and my heart goes out to her. Perhaps Parkinson’s was the next blow.

Then maybe the slightest thing took away one of his pinions. A fight with a friend. His wife going on a trip for a few days.

As Hyperbole and a Half’s Allie Brosh has astutely documented, depression is not necessarily sadness. Some people feel depression as a towering wall of intense negative emotion. We imagine the Renaissance painter, overcome with melancholic urges. But for many, depression is just a gnawing nothing, a pit, an abyss.

If one has depressive tendencies, that pit can always be there. It takes immense effort and very difficult cognitive work to close it. Therapy, meditation, psychotropic medication… all of that may only keep the pit at bay, filled in or walled off. And even that is a titanic achievement.

When one is in that state, the little things become that much more important. They’re the few footholds left into reality. If those start to buckle, one can very easily view oneself as falling into a death-like state anyways.

All of this means that mental health isn’t just about getting someone a diagnosis, or getting them to maintain medication. It’s about constant vigilance.

People think that if we can just check the early diagnoses and give them treatment, we’ll fix the issue. They implicitly imagine mental health as being like strep throat.

For most people, mental health is more like diabetes. It is a constant management process. There are new complications.

I truly believe in solutions that can transform our lives. I truly believe that, with enough cognitive work, we can get at deep behavioral and personal issues. I struggle every day to create tools in everything that I do, from my creative work to my non-fiction writing to my interactions with people, that will give them true resilience. Give them access to the inner fortress I have been so blessed with.

I have realized recently that it is a bad day for me if I am not smiling so hard my face begins to hurt. It is a bad day if I do not experience at least ten minutes of such intense joy that I lose my ego to it entirely and lose track of time.

I know this is not most peoples’ experience. But realizing that is very difficult, and takes empathy and work with others and exposure to people outside of our normal social network. It takes new perspective.

This is why our discussion about mental health can’t just be about diagnoses or providing medication or even subsidizing talk therapy. It has to be about eternal attention and ever-present awareness, cultivating people and institutions that embody bottomless empathy. We always have to be on the watch for the problems that will hit our friends and families.

There’s a speech in Rocky Balboa that has resonated with me for years. Stallone himself, despite tremendous success, must have endured massive failure to be able to make this speech echo so deep in the halls of our souls. He says that nothing hits you harder than life, so the measure of a person is now how hard they can hit life first or even how hard they can hit life back but how they can get back up and keep fighting.

I have often found myself in life more like Apollo Creed: Offensively oriented, striking at the problems of the world proactively. But even I find myself knocked down on occasion, having to climb back up that well that I speak about in my book Skillful Means.

Everyone will have life take things away from them. We will all find times in our life when we struggle to find meaning, to make the world make sense, to keep our soul together.

So if we want to stop seeing wonderful men like Williams take their own life or injure themselves or become addicted to drugs, we have to start having the courage to sally forward with love and care and make sure that no one goes silent. We have to lower the barriers of shame and humiliation. We have to be able to listen to others’ stories without judgment and without thinking that we necessarily know better. We have to give feedback in a way that is loving.

And that isn’t just personal duty. That is an institutional duty. Our institutions can’t just be about monitoring adherence to medication or providing resources for cognitive-behavioral therapy. We need to make sure that people don’t fall through the cracks.

However, there’s a flipside of all this, a positive thought I want to leave you with.

When we see people like Williams who touched millions with enthusiasm, love and care, who influenced fellow actors’ lives with a beautiful personality, and we find that they suffered…

That should be a call to action for those of us who are in pain.

If someone who clearly grappled with the depths of sadness could do as much as Robin Williams did, then no one in pain or in the throes of mental illness should ever doubt their own value as a human being. They should know that they are capable of great things, that there is no ceiling to what they can accomplish.

We may never fully understand why Williams apparently took his own life. But I have been seeing a tremendously positive response to his passing. People are trying to understand. Perhaps we can finally open a true national dialog about pain, depression, and true mental health.

In closing, I truly believe it is possible for us to see the vast majority of people have the inner fortress of true resilience and happiness that I have been blessed with and others I have met have been blessed with. I truly believe in the promise of Siddhartha Gautama, Socrates and Plato, that there is a route to endless and joyous happiness in this lifetime. But it begins with acknowledging the problem and the depths of despair. And we will only get there when people collectively finally take a vow to love and be heroic for others, always watching out for pain and always being ready to intervene skillfully.