I find it profoundly ironic that a comedic genius like Robin Williams ended his life in such a tragic way. Aristotle, our earliest literary critic, equated comedy with the ridiculous, tragedy with seriousness. Williams’ story of life and death illustrates the paradox of Ancient Greek theater, but it wasn’t until his “final act,” that we, his audience, fully acknowledged the seriousness of his suffering.
Williams was apparently in severe pain, yet the depth of his despair was eloquently cloaked in humor. I recently learned that he donned this mask in childhood to gain the attention of his stern father. One evening, while watching TV together, he saw a side of his father that was totally unfamiliar: a belly-laughing man enthralled by comedian Jonathan Winters. It was then and there, according to Williams, that Winters became his idol, a “Comedy Buddha,” who he’d strive to emulate. But did he do so at his own expense?
Humor — such an incredible salve for many an aching heart. Research now proves that humor can increase feelings of resilience, hope and optimism, but paradoxically, research also shows that humor, especially the self-deprecating brand, can be used to mask feelings of low self-worth, anxiety and depression. Williams wasn’t a stranger to this style of humor, especially when joking about his battle with addiction. He lived with this disease for several decades, and in addition, suffered with severe clinical depression, and possibly, bipolar disorder.
To live is to suffer, wrote Nietzsche. I don’t mean to sound morbid. I’m not a nihilist who believes that suffering is useless. I believe what Helen Keller believed: All the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.
Suffering, in its original sense, meant “undergoing.” Overcoming suffering requires a prolonged commitment to face what feels insurmountable and heal whatever ails us so that we might become more compassionate and complete as human beings. The 13th century poet, Rumi, encourages us with his words…Don’t turn away, Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.
When we look at the bandaged place without resistance or self-criticism, we experience a “progressive softening”, writes Christopher Germer, Ph.D. In his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, he defines five stages of acceptance: 1) Aversion—resistance, avoidance, rumination; 2) Curiosity—turning toward discomfort with interest; 3) Tolerance—safely enduring; 4) Allowing—letting feelings come and go; 5) Friendship—embracing, seeing hidden value.
I don’t believe Robin Williams avoided suffering. Conversely, I think he endured it far too long. Maybe he desperately wanted to take off the mask that had become his overarching identity, interchanging the ridiculous with the seriousness in a more public way (and he did, tragically). If only a youthful Robin could have discovered a comic like Kevin Breel, in addition to Jonathan Winters, maybe he’d still be with us. Breel, an advocate for mental health, is determined to “shatter the silence of suffering,” speaking out about his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts.
You’ve got to watch Breel’s 11-minute TED Talk, especially if you, or anyone you know, suffers from depression or other mental or emotional anguish. It’s quite moving. And if you are suffering from any severe emotional distress, please don’t suffer in silence. Seek help.