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Robin Williams and the Demons We Live With

Someone who spread pure joy and boundless happiness all around could be so incredibly, incurably sad himself and die so unhappy–can there be a greater tragedy and irony than this?


[dropcap]Y[/dropcap]ou can never tell when children’s carefree, helpless peals of laughter will turn to tears and why.  Robin Williams, who entertained children and grown-up children all his life, was like a child himself. He never grew up.

Celebrating child-like innocence and insouciance in the make-believe world of the movies and making many of us forget our own, the incomparable actor apparently had had enough of the world of grown-ups.

But, as a young friend wondered with infectious sadness, why is it that people who are all the time cheering up others often find themselves so unhappy and depressed? Why indeed?

Someone who spread pure joy and boundless happiness all around could be so incredibly, incurably sad himself and die so unhappy–can there be a greater tragedy and irony than this?

Having long watched and admired the actor’s path-defining work, like millions and millions of his fans around the world, one shares the pain. It’s incredibly saddening. Almost like losing someone in family. This again has something to do with the genius of Williams’ art and force of his personality that so many of us around the world who never met or saw him in flesh and blood should feel so devastated.

Great artists like him bring humanity together in a strange, indefinable kinship—the kinship of shared human emotions and fellowship of innocence and experience.

From “Hook” to “Aladdin,” from “Mrs. Doubtfire” to “Good Will Hunting” and from ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ to ‘The Birdcage’ Williams was a powerful, creative force through and through, often leaving critics with the dilemma of slotting him.

As Ryan Gilbey of the Guardian notes, many of his most popular performances were as child-men rampaging through the prissy adult world.

While he was obviously recognized as the comical genius that he was for many of his quirky, delightful movies that many of us remember watching as children or with our children, he proved time and again in immensely inspiring films such as ‘Dead Poets Society’, easily his finest, that he was more than a funny man. He was not just an extraordinary performer, he had a rare ability to connect with his audience—emotionally and in other ways.

His role as John Keating, an unusual high school teacher who defies all the stuffy norms and conventions of the 50s public school life to help his students rediscover the beauty of literature—and life—remains the most iconic and inspiring of all his performances.

The scene in which his students, standing on table tops to the horror of other teachers, cheer for him, singing ‘O Captain! My Captain’–from Walt Whitman’s poem–has inspired generations and become an indelible part of pop culture.

Of course, there have been and there will be better and greater actors and artists. But that indefatigable smile, that impossible twinkle in the eye, that natural warmth and instant rapport that he established with his audiences in the blink of an eye…we will miss that. There will be no other Robin Williams for a long time to come for sure.

But why on earth did he have to kill himself, many of us ask in sheer despair. We may never know the answer.  Only those who have been to the bottomless pit of pain that is depression and loneliness may have some idea. The actor had been battling severe depression and bipolar disorder and had recently been in rehab, according to his representatives. Yet this is all very bewildering and shocking to his family and millions of fans.

Perhaps, just as there exists a thin dividing line between genius and neurosis, there is a not too distinct divide that separates laughter and happiness from tears and sadness. Apparently, even as the actor with a staggering talent for mercurial, manic comedy endlessly entertained and regaled us, often bringing helpless tears of joy to our eyes, he was often fighting his own tears.

While he laughed at himself with us and reveled in being a clown, helping us forget our own endless anxieties and petty woes, he was battling his own demons and goblins.

However, the actor was sanguine about his mental state, telling NPR in 2006, “No clinical depression, no. I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, ‘Whoa.’ Other moments you look and go, ‘Oh, things are O.K.’”

But things are far from ‘okay’ when you are fighting a monster like depression.  Every year more than 39,000 Americans take their lives, twice the number of those killed in accidents or homicide. And more than 90 percent of those who committed suicide were diagnosed with depression or other mental illnesses like bipolar disorder.

As Time magazine put it, “Williams arrived at the same terrible place 39,000 other Americans reach each year, and like them, he concluded that the only way to annihilate a terrible despair was to annihilate the self.”

Those who have battled depression. at one time or another—it is often a life-long affair although doctors assure us with a straight face that depression is treatable—or loved ones afflicted by it know how utterly debilitating and life-sapping it can be.

Invariably, it is not just the victims who suffer; everyone around them, and the immediate family in particular, lives through this hell with them, often with far-reaching, catastrophic consequences.

I have a close family member who has battled depression nearly half her life. A close friend has seen her young brother–immensely talented and full of promise and coming from an economically secure background–suddenly withdraw himself into a shell to eventually end up in hospital requiring constant medical supervision and heavy sedation.

In both the cases, the families have suffered beyond words—and continue to do so–with the patients being seemingly oblivious to the pain caused all around. They seem to live in a world of their own to realize it.  But do they really? If it had been so, victims wouldn’t go to the extreme of ostensibly putting an end to their suffering—and that of their loved ones, as Williams did.

It’s easy to pontificate and sermonize about the moral timidity and even selfishness of taking one’s life, without heeding the trauma and pain it causes one’s loved ones. Who knows what demons do they fight, day in and day out? Who knows how and what they suffer, often in silence and often in their mind?

We realize the price they pay on a daily basis often only when it’s too late–one quiet day when they give up, as Williams did, as so many of Hollywood stars and celebrities before him did. From the talented Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, Mission Impossible III) to Heath Ledger (Dark Knight, The Brokeback Mountain) and Brittany Murphy to Michael Jackson to Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse, the list is tragically endless.

Of all the people though, it’s impossible to envision the ever cheerful and ever smiling Williams, the teacher celebrating life in ‘Dead Poets Society’, as someone who would take his own life.  Perhaps, in the end, as Bikram Vohra writes, he gave so many people so many laughs he ran out of laughs for himself. Laughter is serious business.

Meanwhile let’s please try to take care of each other, especially those who are closest to us. Do not take relationships for granted. I hate to sound didactic and preachy here but please never ever think you are alone in this world—or make others feel they are.

Those of us living away from families and loved ones in distant lands are especially vulnerable. They often feel abandoned and ignored by the very people for whom they toil away their entire lives.  Keep them in your prayers and thoughts.  Spread and share love while you can. A kind word here, a generous gesture there can go a long way in saving lives. Who knows what tomorrow has in store for us.  Do not let love die. Life is too precious and beautiful to be thrown away.

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