It is with terrible sadness that we learned that Robin Williams died yesterday, at age 63.
He came to us from another planet as the friendly alien Mork, and played every role you could imagine. Robin Williams turned children’s crying to laughter with his charming blue genie, he made us cry from laughter with his stand up comedy, and he inspired us to tears with his heartfelt storytelling and passionate characters like Patch Adams, Sean Maguire, and John Keating.
Williams taught us lessons about how to live better, kinder, more inspiring lives through his work. Grief stricken in a world without his lightning speed whit and earnest acting, he lives on through what he taught us:
In “Good Will Hunting,” Williams teaches us about what true knowledge is, when he plays psychologist Sean Maguire, in charge of counseling the deeply intelligent Will Hunting. In his famous monologue on the park bench, we learn that you can’t know and understand life from reading the great masterpieces, or from examining the most famous paintings. Learning means living; it means getting your hands dirty in mistakes and heartbreak. Life will wait for no one, as he tells Hunting, “Your move, kid!”
As John Keating, the “Dead Poets Society” English teacher we all dreamed of having, Williams implores his classroom and his audience to seize the day. In this chilling scene, Keating escorts his class of high schoolers out to the hallway lined with pictures of past generations of students.
“They’re not that different from you, are they? …Their eyes are full
of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make
from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? … But if you
listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go
on, lean in. Listen. Do you hear it? (whispering in a gruff voice)
Carpe. Hear it? (whispering) Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys.
Make your lives extraordinary.”
Through this moment we are reminded that we are bound to generations past and generations to come by a common hope of contributing something real, of achieving greatness.
This heartwarming scene is from the end of “Mrs. Doubtfire”, when Robin Williams appears on TV, still dressed as the beloved English nanny, to give advice to a young girl who asks about having divorced parents. Robin Williams takes an often oversimplified concept, of what is a family, and turns it on its head way before its time.
“There are all sorts of different families, some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy … some children live with their grandparents, some children live with foster parents … ” but in the end, love is what defines a family. In all the variety of life and the anxiety of fitting into a mold, Williams reassures us that as long as we find love and happiness, we are on the right path.
“Every human being has an impact on another,” explains Patch Adams, the medical student at a disciplinary hearing for practicing medicine without a license. Williams delivers a hard-hitting monologue touching on many aspects of healthcare: doctors should prevent death and improve quality of life, and doctors should treat people, not diseases. But these axioms go past the medical profession and touch on the humanity many of us lose in favor of the distance we use to protect ourselves from vulnerability. Patch Adams pushes us to be open to other’s pain so we can feel and heal together.
Many people were saddened and shocked to learn that Robin Williams waged an ongoing battle against depression. Mental health disorders are complex and extremely serious; they are difficult to understand from the outside and we only hurt people who suffer from them by being dismissive of their experience. While it may not be as tangible as seeing someone with broken bones or lying in a hospital bed, depression is a real, debilitating condition that can consume a person’s life.
Hopefully, we can take this moment to further develop awareness and empathy around mental health, and increase our admiration for Robin Williams and other like him, who despite suffering from a crippling mental health condition, found the strength to share kindness and laughter with others.
In the wake of any death, particularly one wrapped up in a tale of genius and depression, of rehabilitation and relapse, of feeling our lives have been deeply touched by someone we have never met, it can be easy to fall into endless questioning about death.
However, so many monologues that Robin Williams delivered were about life, about living a story so full it bursts at the seams. We leave you with this:
“To quote from Whitman: ‘O me, o life of the questions of these
recurring, of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled
with the foolish. What good amid these, o me, o life?’ Answer: That
you are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play
goes on, and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes
on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
Oh Captain, Our Captain, you have left the indelible trace of your verse etched in the laughter and hearts of many. Thank you for all you have taught us.