Robin Williams died today. He was 63, the same age, incidentally, as my father will be just about the time I finish drafting this post. It’s eerie to me, a bit, because my father is also a man whose humor can belie some deep, rough stuff. But then, I imagine that’s many more of us than we care to admit.
I was struck in the hours immediately following his death by the outpouring of sadness from people all over the country, and the world. This was a performer we could all name, could all quote. He was the funny uncle, the weird neighbor, the goofy cartoon of a man who was bankable because of his consistency. Everyone thinks he’s funny.
My favorite movie of his wasn’t a comedy, though. It wasn’t particularly well-known. It’s a movie that I think didn’t do particularly well in the theaters, even, but I’ve always liked a dark horse of a movie. The Fisher King is a weird film, about redemption, and brokenness, and finding one’s way back from the abyss. It resonated with me, even at a young age, partly because of the allegory, and partly because you couldn’t look away from Williams. I wanted to reach through the screen and help him, to make it stop, to heal this deep wound. I wanted to turn off the movie to keep it from seeping into that same wounded place in me. Not because I have been a homeless man with delusions of grandeur, but because that amount of raw vulnerability felt, even from a distance, unbearable.
As I later became an actor myself, I would think about that role and the bottomlessness of it- the darkness that you would need to tap into to access it. The naturalness with which he put it on should have been a clue to us all. But we were too busy enjoying the show.
So tonight I was not surprised by the outpouring, but I was struck by it. I realized that part of what drove him to death was probably feeling unloved, unwanted, misunderstood. The tragedy is that it didn’t matter how loud the applause, how genuine the praise. There was a hole inside him that no one else could fill, and it seems he died trying. Nothing can substitute for self-love, and self-worth. Nothing, not even the love of millions and money to match.
So I’ll leave you with this, from him, from Dead Poets Society: “Seize the day. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die.” Every day we still draw breath, we can choose to believe in our own worth, our own value. Let that be the lesson and legacy from this beloved, sad clown.