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As a single woman in my thirties, my current M.O. is to go out with pretty much anyone at least once. A new-ish friend asked if I would go out with a guy she knew, and while he looked slightly older, I didn’t know he was a solid two decades my senior.
Taking a bite of my pizza, I heard him ask the age old question, “What’s your favorite movie?”
“Hook,” I said.
Surprised, he shot back the very question I was thinking, “How old are you?”
“30. And you?”
And then we quickly moved on to the next topic of conversation, ignoring the fact that we were both trying to figure out what he was doing while I was still in utero.
When I was little, our television broke and my parents didn’t bother getting us another one for seven years. (Thanks, guys.) Finally all three of us kids pitched in to buy a 19″ dual TV/VHS and it changed everything. It felt like Christmas morning every time I heard that flapping sound after pushing a tape into the VHS player with my chubby little hands.
Hook was a big deal because it was the first PG-movie I had ever seen. I was so tickled by the humor and imagination of it all that I watched it at least five times before it had to be returned to the video store.
At that age, though, I just enjoyed being entertained. I wasn’t thinking about Robin Williams as a human being who possibly had a life, children, Parkinson’s disease and a mind that observed life so intently that he would someday chose to end his own.
Like many of you, I let out an audible, “NO!” when I got the text from my mother informing me of Williams’ death by hanging. I felt instant nausea over a man I had never met, but who brought pure joy and laughter to me and so many others.
A couple years ago some friends recommended I take an improv class to help me with my speaking. I decided to take them up on it, and then signed up for another and another and another.
It’s been a year and a half now, and what has come out of those classes is an intrigue and deep respect for comedians, and an obsessive observation of the observers.
I call comedians “observers,” because I believe, like theologians, philosophers and true artists, they cannot create unless they are constantly thinking about the world around them. Yet this process of constantly trying to study humanity, understand pain and ask “why” in order to create humor can also contribute to feelings of hopelessness.
Philosophers and pastors try to understand the heavy questions of this world through logic and reasoning, but comedians highlight the hard questions by making light of life. It’s a way that makes every person feel like they aren’t the only one asking the question, and it brings most of us to the point of laughter and lightness. For a moment we feel less alone in the world.
While we’re laughing, though, we forget to pause and appreciate that the trained mind of a true comedian is often flat-out genius. Over the last year my fascination for live comedy has led me to multiple improv shows at iO, Second City and UCB in New York and Chicago. My interest has been less about laughing (although it’s a beautiful by-product) and more about the craft. These comedians often have a broader survey of history, news and pop culture than most reporters do, and they have the ability to connect with each other and the audience in a way that pinpoints the heart of it all.
Pinpointing irony and observation like no other, writer David Foster Wallace, was a comedian in his own right. He could take something as random as the ethics of boiling lobsters to their death and make you laugh, while simultaneously feel like your head was going to explode because of his spiraling logic. I get consumed by his brilliantly tortured mind to the point where I find myself understanding why he, like Williams, took his own life.
It’s as if Wallace could see every side of a coin, and that coin had 24 sides. Like Williams, Wallace hung himself in what I can only imagine was one of the most horrific, final moments of desperation–a fatal longing to momentarily feel something so real, so there would no longer be the need to feel.
So what’s my point?
Sadly many of us don’t pause to observe life in an acute way. We aren’t forced to ask the questions about humanity that a comedian or artist must do on a daily basis in order to rightly represent what they are trying to communicate or highlight about the world.
But, then again, some of us do. And when we do, the reality is that we probably will become depressed. There is a lot of sadness in this world. Many of us won’t get to the exhausted state of Williams where we would choose to drastically end our lives, but we all have a way of numbing ourselves when we don’t want to see the pain around us or face our own demons.
Movies, food, social media, sex, drugs, rock n’ roll (just felt like the right sequence), YouTube, sports, school, work and even (gasp!) church can make us numb.
Since I identify myself as a Christian, I know my perspective on this world should be different. Without depression? Without Parkinson’s? Without suicide? No, those things will haunt many of us no matter what we believe. But the hope is that those things won’t win out over life.
I want us to continue to observe, ask “why” and not be afraid to truly feel this life. Jesus deeply felt the joy and sorrow of humanity, and it’s what compelled him to take action. Christianity asks people to see what’s wrong with the world and ourselves, and believe there can be healing–not happiness necessarily, but healing.
I pray for a spirit of humility as many Christians attempt the unglamorous work of making all things new–fighting against our own demons, the darkness of this world, depression and loneliness, in order to bring good news, hope, healing and real joy (and hopefully some laughter) to humanity.
“But I’m a Christian and I’m depressed! How am I supposed to bring this “good news” to the world? I’m not even sure I believe it anymore!”
Let’s let depression or sadness become a moment for pause. Let’s not numb or distract ourselves from the opportunity to observe. Even if you are not a Christian, I would encourage you to pray for an opportunity to see humanity in a new light. Look up from your phone at the world around you. Turn off Netfix and ask God, “If you are real, and if your words in Scripture are real, what can I possibly do to bring light to the world?”
Following in the footsteps of Jesus, we can see that He prayed and asked the Father for strength even when He felt that He had none. He was given the strength to see the world through the unnatural lens of love, and I believe we can pray for that kind of love, too.
And following in the footsteps of observers and comedic geniuses like Robin Williams, we can then hopefully and intentionally bring a light and lightness to the world around us.
A world that is intended to be as it is in heaven.
From my heart,
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This was brilliant. Thank you. We need to watch comedy together sometime.
Ummmm, yes please!! It’s the Stumptown Improv Festival this weekend. Hop on your bike.
I asked my counselor why I felt so sad about Robin Williams and why it felt so personal. She told me that everyone is the same when we boil away the things that separate us. We’re all hot messes on the inside, so the hot mess in me related to the hot mess in him and it made me sad. Sad to know that someone could want to end their life, a life that brought so much joy to others. I might deal with my mess in different ways than he did, but in the end we’re all people and that’s what binds us and in the end what makes us sad in tragedy. That common connection.
Joy, you are an awesome person. Your sadness and confusion over Mr. Williams’ death is shared by so many of us. As a Christian who struggles with depression I tend to look at the world through Ecclesiastical eyes; “Meaningless! Meaningless!…Everything is meaningless!”
I can’t point to a particular reason for the depression; it’s just been there since I was a child. There was a life-event that happened in 1998 that took me beyond the depression into the shadows of suicide. In your thoughts, you say the Robin Williams chose to commit suicide. It’s something I’ve seen in several blogs about this event is that “it was a choice”. Some suicides may be a choice, I don’t know. But I can tell you from my experience that I don’t believe his was a choice in that moment. When severe depression has you in its clutches and your mind is uncontrollably screaming every negative thought and emotion you have, you don’t have a choice. You’re not thinking about calling the Suicide Hotline. You’re not thinking about your family or friends. In that moment, all you can hear is the screams of your mind; your personal demons all attacking at once and there is only one way to silence the torment.
It is only by divine intervention that I am still on this planet. I still struggle every day, but through counseling, diet, exercise, and learning how to process the meaninglessness of this world, I will overcome.
Ecclesiastes discusses the meaninglessness of so many things but exalts the little things in life. As you said, the observers pay attention to everything. Chapter 9 says death comes to all of us, righteous and evil. It also says that in light of the world’s vanity, we should eat, drink, and be in fellowship with our friends and family. The little enjoyable things tend to go out of focus when the weight of the world is examined. Don’t forget life’s small pleasures and lean on God when the weight of the world becomes overwhelming. He truly is the Shepard that leads to still waters and green pastures when the shadow of death is upon us.
Thank you thank you for highlighting this — I actually debated over the word “chose” because I agree with you. I don’t know all the circumstances and I didn’t know Mr. Williams, so I feel like his “choice” was a word that I knew was full of nuance and may be debated over since none of us fully know what happened. Thanks for sharing your experience and struggle and encouraging challenge and reminder of the goodness and truth available to us now.
I don’t mean to nitpick it, but after reading a blog the other day that said, “Robin Williams didn’t die from depression, He died by his own choice”, that word lit my brain on fire. I realize your intentions weren’t to claim it as a choice, but I just want people to know that there is a lack of control when it gets to that point. My prayers go out to everyone who struggles with depression, and I hope they realize that they are not alone. But I also hope they realize that dwelling on the negative only attracts more negative. When your mindset starts in that direction, find something positive to dwell on. There are days that I will literally say out loud, “Positive thoughts. Positive thoughts. Positive thoughts.” until the negativity passes. HAHA It’s a little crazy but it works for me.
I went around and around how to even start this. So, I will simply say, thank you. You wrapped up an understanding of how hard it is for those that think differently, because you are one of those people. You let us all see a piece of yourself, Robin and all others like you. To be blessed and cursed with a mind able to wrap itself around seeing things that are missed by most others can be incredibly difficult, lonely, frustrating, etc. Don’t ever stop sharing from your heart. You bless so many with your thoughts and words.
Truly your words have spoken to my heart. My husband suffers from depression, and he is an observer through and through. He notices so much life, hurt, and pain in the world and I know sometimes he feels like he could drown in it if it weren’t for his faith, and sometimes his observations make me laugh so hard I may pee a little. Thank you for your perspective and understanding. This was one of my favorite blogs written about Robin Williams (and I’ve read ALOT of them) and his beautiful talent and amazing wit. Write on, you are a joy (sorry- I couldn’t think of another word) to read.
Ruuuuffffi-ooooooo!!! Jill, first of all I love that your husband makes you pee your pants. I would like to see that in action. It’s really cool to hear these words as I didn’t allow myself to read any of the posts about him so it wouldn’t impact what my soul was feeling but I want to now to hear others thoughts. If you have any you recommend, please send my way! And tell your husband to keep observing! You seem like the perfect partner for fostering his strengths in the midst of struggle. And I trust he supports your struggle by buying you Depends. (-:
Beautiful thoughts that were beautifully penned… I am one who has battled with depression in various seasons of my life, so I very much appreciate the perspective of this “demon” also being a gift and a potential source of joy. Thank you for sharing from your heart!
P.S. When you say “pretty much anyone,” does that include guys you’ve never met who live across the country?? I can collect a few references who will speak relatively highly of me without me even having to pay them. Oh, and Jesus knows me, too.
Thank you for posting this. I also feel this loss as something so personal. I maybe cried once over a celebrity’s death, but this felt so real. So close to my heart. Like you, I appreciate comic geniuses like Williams and others who bring light out of heavy situations. I’ve been thinking for years on taking an improv class, and now I’m gonna do it.
The K you again for this post. I know I did not justhappen to sstumble upon this. God bless you tremendously.
Joy, This is wonderfully written! Out of all the responses to Robin Williams’ story, your post has resonated the most with me. The “unnatural lens of love” makes all the difference. I would never steal that from you, but I sure wish I’d written it. 😉 I also love the distinction you made between healing and happiness. Deep stuff. Glad I had my coffee first.