It’s been a few days now since the death of Robin Williams and I have spent those days digging through the layers of my own sadness. As a professional counselor, I am well aware that feeling an emotion does not necessarily equate to understanding that emotion. I feel such sadness about the loss of this man that I never met. And, until today, I was just not sure what that intensity of emotion was all about. Yes I am terribly sad, as I would be about any person leaving this earth too soon. But with Robin, there is more. I benefitted richly from this man my entire life. For 30 years, he has been a constant source of entertainment and laughter. I was 8 years old when Robin taught me to fly, to fight, and to crow as Peter Pan. I was 9 when he brought Disney’s Genie to life, 10 when he dressed up as a nanny for Mrs. Doubtfire AND voiced the wacky bat in Fern Gully (remember that one?). I was 12 when he took care of a couple of kids around my age inside a maniacal, man-eating Jumanji game. And I was 14 when I saw him play a vulnerable, funny, sad, and tough-as-nails therapist in Good Will Hunting (yes, I was too young for that one but really, what are a few f-bombs when you get a story like that – a story of love and loss and brotherhood). For years, Robin Williams has poured into my life. And I never met him. Never knew anything about him, really. I missed those early days, the Mork and Mindy era when his personal demons were more visible. In my child’s mind, he was simply a light source – a never-ending well of energy that could give and give without being exhausted. And without realizing it, I derived great comfort from his constancy. In true egocentric child fashion (and maybe this is just the way we think about celebrities in general) I never saw him as a fallible human being. I chose to bask in his glow without a thought for the light source. And it is that – the looking back, the reassessing, recognizing Robin’s humanity and my naiveté – that has so compounded my sadness over these last few days. He was a human being – a brave human being who fought addiction and mental illness with a smile – but a human being nonetheless, with needs and fears and insecurities.
This feeling that is deeper than sadness is not guilt. I believe that Robin Williams found fulfillment in the joy that he brought to the lives of children like me. Plus I, as a child growing up in central Texas, had no access to this international superstar. I could not have helped him and really had no right to try. He had a family and friends who, from the things that I have read, loved him dearly. No, this feeling is something wider and deeper than guilt. This is a lament of my heart, because the way things are is not the way that they should be. We people are not connected. We crave intimacy but the hunger is never satisfied. So often, we fail to ask for what we need or we fail to give what is needed or (the crux of the issue) we don’t even know what those needs are. In those spaces that are not black and white, where there is no easy answer but things are clearly not right, lament is, in my mind, an appropriate (perhaps the only?) response.
There’s plenty of room for lament right now. Riots and looting and tear gas and rubber bullets abound in St. Louis – a city that I called home until a year ago. Both sides feel unheard, powerless, afraid, and the road to healing is anything but straight. Rockets fly back and forth between Israel and Palestine, fighting an age-old war. Innocent people die and those on the periphery take sides. These are two huge disconnects, breakdowns in human connection, that fill our headlines and our televisions. But we also experience this on a much smaller scale in day-to-day life. Spousal misunderstandings lead to marital tension; teen communication breaks down when their language is totally foreign to their parents; sometimes we don’t even understand what is going on inside ourselves (and if you aren’t connected to you, how will you connect with others?). What’s more, this disconnect is not simply a product of the age we live in. It would be great if we could blame it on technology or selfies or mass media. But this issue of disconnection has been around in one form or another for all of human history. It is nothing new, and we are probably not going to fix it any time soon. And so we lament.
For me, though, there is a spiritual element here. I come from a faith tradition that believes in the restoration of all things, including our relationships. So this lament, this cry of my heart, is a longing for something that is coming. I feel the absence of wholeness because wholeness is what I was intended for and it is also where I am heading. Oddly enough, my own lament is also a reminder to me of my hope. As C.S. Lewis states in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” I believe in restoration. I believe that justice and mercy are in the world and will eventually win out. In fact, perhaps my childhood picture of Robin Williams is less a product of my naiveté than of my hope. I saw him fighting for joy and for laughter – not only in his own life but also in mine. And that is not a fool’s errand. Joy will be victorious.