Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Robin Williams: Requiem for a dead poet

Robin Williams in 2003
Robin Williams in 2003

Robin Williams in 2003

I feel so terribly sad about Robin Williams.

Great genius has once again revealed its dark side. (I’m struck, in light of yesterday’s news, by the painful fact that Williams’s most recent solo comedy DVD was called Weapons of Self Destruction.)

Sometimes the darkness is more dormant. Watching the zany brilliance of Williams at work, it was easy to forget that he was a man with demons, including depression and an up-and-down history of substance abuse.

Celebrity deaths happen often enough that most of us who are of a certain age have become inured to their tragedy. We were sad when Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed, and perhaps a bit unsurprised when it was Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston.

For whatever reason, Williams’s death hit me harder than any of those other recent celebrity losses, partly because the intentionality of his apparent suicide prohibits us the comforting fiction that it might have been “just an accident.”

[tweetable] With this death Williams becomes part of the statistic of the most at-risk group for suicide in America. [/tweetable] It’s not young men in the vulnerable late teens or early 20s, as Williams’s own movie Dead Poets Society might suggest; it’s older men. (“Thus in the United States the suicide cohort is overwhelmingly white, male, and older than age of 60,” says Medscape.)

And partly my grief stems from the fact that Williams was – I will say it again – so monstrously talented. His films and stand-up routines made us laugh so hard that death seemed far away, even an impossibility. His larger-than-life presence was the very antithesis of death.

There’s a scene in Dead Poets Society when Williams’s character, a teacher, takes the boys in his English class to see old black-and-white photographs of their predecessors at their tony prep school. He gives them a lesson in death, and in life:

Mr. Keating: They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you; their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – – Carpe – – hear it? – – Carpe, carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.

So here is what I will remember about this man, being mindful of his wife’s request that we focus on his life and his artistic contributions rather than the sad circumstances of his death:

[tweetable] Robin Williams is one who seized the day, who sucked the marrow out of life, who gifted the world with a barbaric yawp. [/tweetable]

Thank you, Robin. Now you can make all of heaven laugh.

 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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