Robin Williams’ suicide has touched many of us and the familiar Parrish Shoe sign has become a shrine of sorts to his life and legacy. My favorite role of his was as Patch Adams, a doctor who found out that making his patients laugh was a very healing thing to do. It is ironic that the man who played this character ended up taking his own life because he could no longer find any joy in this world.
I venture to forward that a lot of us know intimately what that dark place feels like. And it may be that slight hint of underlying pain and sadness that Robin William’s somehow imparted to all of his characters that made him so beloved as an actor, and why we are all mourning his premature passing so widely.
Apparently, Robin Williams “suffered” from depression most of his life. “Suffered” in quotation marks, because in many cultures and spiritual beliefs, rather than “fighting” against and/or “overcoming” this pain, there is a call to accept it as a natural part of the cycle and rhythm of life. Just as there is day and night; winter and summer – there is pain and joy.
My mother, who herself had many dark times, always refused to give us aspirin. Rightly or wrongly, she said she wanted us to know what pain feels like, and not always run away from it.
As someone who has lived abroad and traveled quite extensively, one of the hallmarks I most note about US culture is our emphasis on trying to ameliorate problems and pains through pills, legislation, psychotherapy and more. It is as if we wish to always live in a Disney movie that ends happily ever after.
But that is in truth a lie, and perhaps one of the shadow sides of our culture is our inability to accept that other side, that dark side, of life as a very important component of wholeness.
There are many different strategies and ways of encountering that dark place, navigating our way through it, and then back into the light once again. Creativity of any sort can be a most powerful technique for many of us, and in fact much of the greatest music, writing, artwork, and visual productions were birthed by people who were in that dark void when inspiration came upon them. I began writing more deeply years ago in my moments of despair over a crumbling marriage and difficult life circumstances, and it was this writing that saved me from the abyss.
When darkness becomes a problem is when it does not pass – dwelling within us so heavily we lose all hope of ever feeling joyous and full of light again. And it is here that the role of loved ones and a compassionate community is so important.
I was once told by a Mapuche man from southern Chile that his people have a way to cure depression that is community based. When someone is in a deep depression, a ritual ceremony is carried out in which all members of the person’s extended family must be present and participate in fully. By forming a circle of care around the person in need and singing and drumming, they can cast out the darkness through their collective presence and support.
Some recent articles have pointed out how Robin Williams felt all alone and abandoned during his last and final bout with depression. Maybe this is what touched us too, our sense that we want to let him know – even if he has departed this world – that he is not alone. He is beloved by many of us, because we too are quirky, different, don’t quite fit in, and we too sometimes feel the pain of those dark places that can crash down upon us and hold us in their grip.
Perhaps it is easier to honor Robin William’s suicide than those of local residents, but it bears mentioning that one block away from what has become an altar to Robin Williams a middle-aged man set himself on fire because he was so depressed and felt so abandoned by the system and his own loved ones. And just last month, on the other side of town, a man committed suicide after an hours long stand off with a horde of police.
Maybe one way we can honor Robin William’s legacy is to support with compassion those around us who are experiencing that dark place and are in need of some of our joyous light right now.