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You never know what’s really going on behind the eyes, behind the mask, of someone you know, but not really.
Comedian and actor Robin Williams apparently committed suicide August 11, and social media flooded with photos and tributes. Seeing his face over and over like that — his eyes looked very sad. Wait — I hear his Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society saying, “Don’t use 'very sad.' Use 'morose'!” I’m feeling morose myself.
I first “met” Robin when Mork arrived from Ork. I didn’t get most of the jokes since I was little, but the fast-talking man in the rainbow suspenders, with his spastic movements, his silly alien handshake, and his greeting (“Nanu Nanu”), made me laugh. My dad, too. Dad bought me rainbow suspenders, just like Mork’s. I wore them all the time — happy multicolored accessories go with everything.
I spent a lot of time with Robin when he portrayed John Keating, “O Captain, My Captain,” in Dead Poets Society. I saw that film in the theater and a million times since then. Like his student Todd (Ethan Hawke), I was a quiet and shy teen writer who felt invisible and thought I couldn’t say or write anything others would want to read or hear. In my life, several teachers encouraged my writing, but watching Mr. Keating make Todd realize he was an artist (in what I argue is the most powerful scene in the movie) made me truly appreciate the gift I’d been given. (See that scene here.)
I laughed and cried as Williams portrayed real-life Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam. I know much of his dialogue from that by heart. And I often reenact his choreography scene from The Birdcage. “Fosse, Fosse, Fosse . . . . Madonna! Madonna! Madonna!”
Of course, I only knew part of him — the creative side he chose to share with the public, the funny side he offered as a gift to everybody. Though only human, with struggles and hurts, battles with addiction, pain, and heartache, celebrities like Robin have extraordinary gifts and the talent (and luck) to share them on a large stage.
That makes us feel as though we know them, so there are many folks feeling sad that Robin’s gone. I say if you’re moved by his life, work, or death, find a way to honor that. Williams helped the homeless — will you? He talked about depression and mental illness — will you? It will help eliminate the remaining stigma surrounding it. He made people laugh — he used his gifts. Will you? Will you, as Mr. Keating encouraged Todd, step out of the shadows and own your authentic artistic awesomeness?
In Dead Poets, Mr. Keating quotes Walt Whitman often, including part of “O Me! O Life!”
O Me! O Life!
Of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish…
What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here — that life exists, and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Robin’s verse was pretty much written — actor, comedian, philanthropist, father, husband. Apparently, part of him thought his verse was complete. It’s sad that whatever he was going through made the idea of tomorrow too difficult to bear.
Instead of focusing on his death, I’ll use the life he let us see as inspiration. In that spirit, I’ll continue to share, express, create, encourage, believe, dance, give, help, and, most of all, laugh.
And maybe I’ll get another pair of rainbow suspenders, if nothing else, as a reminder that a storm can be followed by great beauty — something his struggle apparently made him forget.
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