When I heard the news of Robin Williams’ suicide I was saddened and certainly taken aback but not shocked. This is not because I had any inside information or because I’ve become jaded about the downfall of celebrities. Rather, I’ve become acutely aware that artists, performers, athletes, politicians and all other celebrities and other “successful” people are simply prone to the same struggles as the rest of us humans.
It gives me no pleasure to perceive Robin Williams as human and frail, given how much I admire his work. I loved his standup routine (he is easily my all-time favorite comic) and found him to be an improviser on par with the great jazz musicians who are my professional heroes. I love his dramatic work – indeed, his performance in “Good Will Hunting” should be studied by any social worker who deals with traumatized young adults. I think he was a genius and yet he seemed like the kind of approachable fellow with whom you’d want to have lunch.
But as advanced as we are technologically, the human race has not figured out how to insulate from tragedy. Sure, being successful has its perks and wealth certainly increases the odds of having food, shelter, medical care and protection from certain types of violence. But illness, injury, death of loved ones, inner turmoil and other adversity don’t discriminate. If you have a body, live on this planet and care about others, you will experience difficult circumstances and, most likely, ones that call into question the real importance of status, power, self-importance and all that stuff.
This spring’s Ripples release (and tour) was the biggest undertaking of my artistic life so far, and I find it striking that the timing was so seamless in the sense that I went essentially straight from that to the discovery of my father’s terminal illness and then death, followed in turn by the last days of Kate’s aunt Dottie, in turn followed a few days later from a debilitating back injury (which thankfully has since healed). Is the correct response to a) thank the universe for the eerily sequential nature of these events or b) curse the universe for following my biggest artistic triumph to date with one momentum-halting scenario after another?
Of course the correct answer is “c” (as it usually is when examining polar opposites), so the philosophical conundrum in recent weeks has been what exactly “c” is in this case, or at least what the take-away should be. It begins with the awareness that however important I may wish to think my work is, I am not the center of the universe, so the impact on these circumstances on my work and life are largely incidental regardless of my spiritual beliefs. But the point is not that everything is meaningless and random – far from it.
As I’ve contemplated, my mind has continually returned to Roberto Clemente. For non-baseball fans, he was a brilliantly successful player, who reached the career milestone of 3000 hits (something at that point only 10 other players had ever done) in his last at-bat of the 1972 season. And then he got on a plane to delivered relief supplies to Nicaragua and died in a crash. He has been rightly celebrated ever since both for his on-field accomplishments and his off-the-field humanitarianism.
I don’t know a lot about the aftermath, his family and so on. But I can only imagine that his revered status is a fairly hollow source of consolation for his absence. Sure it’s great to see him admired for his accomplishments, but it’s very difficult to picture those bereaved by his loss taking great solace in thinking “well, at least he didn’t get stuck at 2,987 hits and then die.”
What about all the musicians who could have been superlatively successful but they became sick or died or injured or depressed or addicted or simply sidetracked by other life challenges and responsibilities. Is that tragic? From a certain perspective, maybe, but ultimately real life is what it is. In addition to the perks of fame, celebrities may have certain specific risks that are greater than for the general population – musicians have greater exposure to illicit substances, professional athletes travel more frequently on airplanes, actors are more likely to be stalked and so on. But ultimately these kinds of details obscure the immovable fact that we all experience heartbreak and difficulty. We covet celebrity and success in large part because we imagine it to provide greater immunity from this. But guess what, when you’re depressed or hurt or experiencing the illness or loss of a loved one, all the trophies in the world don’t make a lick of difference. That’s why I’m not shocked by Robin Williams’ passing – he was a human being.
If Robin was the kind, thoughtful man that those who knew him say he was (and that to the rest of us he appeared to be) I suspect he would have appreciated the outpouring of grief and appreciation. And all the same I find it hard to imagine that he would have wanted people to perceive his own succumbing to personal demons as a greater tragedy than that of the countless others similarly afflicted. It would be naïve and probably downright irresponsible of me to speculate that if he’d lived in a utopian world in which we all supported each other openly in all struggles that this might have “saved” him.
But I do know that this particular form of utopia is actually not crazy and that countless people would benefit. I want to deify those I admire as much as anyone reading this might – it’s frankly hard for me to imagine them experiencing the spectrum of human existence to which we’re all vulnerable, whether Stevie Wonder feeling down in the dumps or Roger Federer taking a crap or Bill Cosby grieving the profound loss of a child. But what if we all just recognized that each of us is human, with all the heroism and frailty that goes along with that? What if we stopped imagining that some elusive form of success would give us protection from the mess that is human life and instead embraced the mess . . . and each other?