It’s been a week since Robin Williams’ death. My Facebook newsfeed continues to be filled with beautiful tributes to and memories of him. I think it’s safe to say his death came as a shock to most people. Many asked “how can someone so funny, so successful, so [fill in the blank] take his life?”
The reality, though, is that none of us can possibly know what it was like to be Robin Williams. He struggled with a mental illness, one from which he felt the only option was to take his own life. While we can try our best to understand, to empathize, to imagine what it would be like to be in Robin’s shoes, we must still acknowledge that we can never fully know.
It is so easy to make assumptions about other people. And, yet, to do so is to cheat ourselves and them—for by doing this, we take only a snapshot of what we imagine to be, colored by our own experiences. We do not have a full portrait of the complexity of someone else’s individual experience.
One of my favorite YouTube videos is called “Empathy.” It opens with a question from Henry David Thoreau: “could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes in an instant?” Continuing with footage from a hospital, the video includes thought bubbles over each person’s head, sharing what’s on their minds. We don’t have this luxury in our interactions with others—but perhaps if we knew what was going on in others’ hearts and minds, we would be a bit more compassionate.
I am reminded of Rabbi Hillel’s words 2,000 years ago: “don’t judge another until you have stood in his or her place.” The reality is we can never stand in another’s place. So perhaps the message is more simply stated as, “don’t judge others.”
It does strike me that in just over a month we’ll be observing Rosh Hashanah, also known as the “Day of Judgment.” For me, Rosh Hashanah is not about an external judge evaluating individuals. It’s about doing my own reflection and self-evaluation, constantly retaking my measurements to better understand if I am hitting my own potential. And if I am not, figuring out where the opportunities for growth are.
We can never know what it is like to be anyone other than ourselves. We can only know what’s in our own hearts. Being on a journey to discover that seems like a much better use of our energy than jumping to assumptions about others.
I’ve never cried when a celebrity suddenly dies. It has always seemed like something that just happens. Certainly, it’s a sad day when an actor or musician, athlete or politician has “cashed in their chips” early. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve been shocked and saddened when I’ve learned of the lethal overdose of a promising young athlete or when the news breaks that a famous actor has lost his battle with cancer. But Robin Williams wasn’t just any comedian. He wasn’t your typical actor or entertainer. Robin Williams was the textbook definition of “comedic genius.”
Robin Williams grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan only a few miles from my childhood home and, while not Jewish by birth, he was widely known as an honorary Jew—both for his brand of humor (always peppered with a Yiddish expression and Jewish inflection) and for his unwavering commitment to Jewish causes. I’ve cried several times in the past couple of days since hearing of his untimely death. He was a brilliant at entertaining us.
Like most of my generation, I was first introduced to the silliness of Robin Williams as a young child tuning in to every episode of Mork and Mindy. It was my mimicking of Robin’s goofy antics in kindergarten that led the teacher to tell my parents I was a “class clown.” And then I found my father’s audio cassettes of his standup routines, “Robin Williams: A Night at the Met” and “Reality… What a Concept.” I listened to those tapes dozens of times and brought them with me to summer camp to entertain my friends. The counselors told my parents I should be a standup comedian. Not long after that my dad took me to see Good Morning Vietnam in the theater and then I bought the video tape as soon as it came out, memorizing long segments of the movie and then performing them in front of my class at my Jewish day school. The teacher told my parents that I should tone down my R-rated humor.
As news of Robin Williams’ suicide by hanging (asphyxiation) has now been confirmed and his publicist has explained that he had been struggling with severe depression, we must now find ways to take this tragedy and bring about some positive from it. Many have noted the irony that behind the comedic mask of Robin Williams was a very dark human being who was suffering from depression. Robin Williams had it all—fame and fans, riches and rewards. He had a loving family and countless friends who cared deeply about him. Looking at his life I’m reminded of the Biblical character Jacob who also had it all, but suffered from depression.
We Jews are great at gathering together in times of crisis, but how often do we get together to celebrate joy? This was the illuminating challenge a mohel offered at a bris I recently attended. And it rings true. We are doing a tremendous job of rallying support for Israel solidarity gatherings during Operation Protective Edge. Jews of many religious stripes make a point to show up to services on the High Holy Days, where we sit for hours in solemn reflection, penitence, and apprehension. Perhaps largely due to the recurrence of tragedy and persecution in Jewish history, we have learned to do sad well.
But where are Jewish audiences on Simhat Torah, a day dedicated to rejoicing at arguably the most important feature of Judaism—the ongoing engagement with the Bible? How often do we get together with friends or relatives to celebrate milestones and accomplishments? As I plan a birthday party for my daughter, I wonder when it became fashionable to stop having birthday celebrations as an adult. As I begin a new position this summer, I wonder why we only commemorate the end of past jobs and not—Linked In notifications aside—rejoice communally at new ones.
I write this post with Robin Williams’ death weighing heavily on my mind. Though I never met him, I feel like Mr. Williams was a big part of my life. As a Gen Xer, I grew up with Mork and Mindy, Comic Relief, HBO specials, Dead Poet’s Society, and Good Morning Vietnam (at the risk of dating myself, if you happened to miss the 80s, I highly recommend you download the above). His talent was so breathtaking, his wit so lightning-fast, and yet so heartfelt and genuine, that I often found myself laughing so hard I didn’t realize I was crying as well. His comedic virtuosity was “manic, uninhibited, seemingly barreling along on an arbitrary stream of consciousness but actually arranged carefully around subject categories: drugs, politics, sex, marriage, fatherhood, among the many.” Later, he managed to play off of this exuberant, hurricane-in-a-bottle ability by taking on subdued roles. As the New York Times film critic A. O. Scott put it in this obituary, “Watching him acting in earnest, you could not help but be aware of the exuberance, the mischief, that was being held in check, and you couldn’t help but wonder when, how or if it would burst out. That you knew what he was capable of made his feats of self-control all the more exciting.”
WIlliams’ ability to mine comedy from tragedy, to inspire and encourage, was not only his signature talent but also his biography. He was plagued by addiction to cocaine and alcohol, watching his close friend—and fellow comedic giant—John Belushi die of an overdose. He also was thought to suffer from depression and bipolar disorder, which might well explain his apparent suicide. But Williams somehow refused to let his mental health, marital, and other problems obfuscate his prodigious talent. He used his personal demons as fuel for his stand-up routines, showing the courage to discuss mental illness and addiction when few comedians did. He helped raise millions of dollars in his charity work. And he showed that a comic doesn’t have to demean or insult others to bring a smile or a laugh.
So today, despite the tenuous cease-fire in Israel/Gaza, despite the general mayhem that continues to unfold in the Middle East, despite the ebola outbreak in Africa, despite the immigration crisis in America, despite the global crisis that is global warming, and on and on, I am going to take time out to listen to Robin Williams, zichrono livracha (may his memory be for a blessing). I am going to gather my family together tonight and we are going to laugh, heartily and with gusto. And in his honor, I am going to dedicate myself to seeking opportunities to celebrate happiness and gratitude in the coming year. I hope you will join me.