When I heard of Robin William’s suicide the news hit me harder than I’d imagine. I am aware that each and every human life is valuable. Likewise, I know that our culture’s participation in the cult of celebrity can range from unhealthy to idolatrous. But we humans cannot feel the impact of the death of every human equally (and if we could it would drive us to madness), so for one reason or another (I’m sure there is a neuroscientist out there would can explain “why”) we create a taxonomy of mourning. Those who we knew, closely, or those who impacted our lives greatly—even if we didn’t know them personally—receive the majority share of our emotional energy. Those who we may not have met face-to-face in this life, whose loss may feel as though we did, sometimes includes politicians, athletes, actors, writers, and other artists because of what they brought to our lives through their gifts and talents. Personally, Williams is one of those people I never met face-to-face, but whom I mourn because of what he brought to my life.
If there is a single celebrity that I feel like I share “six degrees of separation” it would be Robin Williams. He was raised in Marin County, a couple counties over from where I was raised in Napa. He was a resident of San Francisco as was I for a while. We both had a deep affection for that city and region of the world. We rooted for the same professional sports teams (what San Francisco Giants fan will forget Robin Williams pumping up the crowd before a 2010 NLDS game against the Atlanta Braves, dancing with our mascot Lou Seal?). I am sure we shared much affinity for many other aspects of Bay Area culture as well.
My father used to drive large trucks to deliver roofing material to construction sites one of which includes William’s estate in the Napa Valley. My doctoral supervisor, Craig A. Evans, went to Claremont at the same time Williams was there and shares hilarious stories of how Williams used to entertain his fellow students in the lunch room. Evans once quipped to a fellow student that the goofball in front of them “will never do anything with his life” only to have to eat crow when he saw him on Mork & Mindy not long thereafter. (Evans laughs about it now saying, “Boy was I wrong!”) My pastor “emeritus” Jeff Garner was with his children one day in a coffee shop in San Francisco when Williams came into the store. He says that Williams was very gracious to all and made everyone laugh at his antics.
When I was about twenty-three years old I was trying to adjust to post-college life in San Francisco. I was struggling, especially financially, so as I am apt to do during times of high anxiety I chose to take a long walk to clear my mind. I began at Ocean Beach and worked my way along the cliffs and paths of the northwest side of the city ending up in the Sea Cliff neighborhood with its amazing views and fancy houses. One house in particular was quite striking, so I stood in front of it gawking while catching my breath. At that point the gates opened and a SUV backed out of the drive way then stopped in front of me. There were two men inside both smiling at me. I felt goofy, but then the person in the driver’s seat became recognizable, even though he was bearded. It was Robin Williams. He laughed and drove away to whatever event he had planned. I stood there feeling half embarrassed, half elated. Suddenly, my troubles faded to the background. I couldn’t wait to see some friends to brag to them about who it was that I saw and instead of my problems consuming my thoughts for a little while William’s smile made the world a more friendly place.
I think this is what many of his films did for us. My favorite is Good Will Hunting. I know for many others it is Dead Poet Society or one of the many other films that made us laugh. When I heard of Williams’ death it was particularly sad because we need people like him in our lives. We have ISIS running rampant in Iraq persecuting religious minorities. In the United States we have children coming to the border we share with Mexico, creating a humanitarian crisis at our front door step. In recent weeks the Black community in our country has faced several horrific incidents of violence that has shaken their confidence in our democracy (and for good reason). The news is mostly bad news these days, so why does the death of an actor matter? Well, we need people like Williams now more than ever because we need a little bit of happiness in the midst of such darkness and despair. People like Williams give us some reprieve. They allow us to catch our breath, even as we lose it laughing so hard. To lose Williams is to compound the misery of the world.
It has been said by quite a few that Williams’ dark comedy came from his ability to see the world as it is. Those who have this blessing/curse often succumb to it. Honesty about reality can be the gateway to depression, which is why so many of us need an escape, an escape Williams often provides through his comedy and acting. I hope that he has now found the peace he sought but could not find and I thank God for the life of a man who helped us laugh in the face of a world that does all it can to take our joy from us.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/378800000739702904/d118cc7709f88d36e8662b72e4c6785c.jpeg[/author_image] [author_info]Brian LePort is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Bristol/Trinity College Bristol. He received his MA in Biblical and Theological Studies and a Master of Theology (Th.M.) from Western Seminary, where he is now an adjunct for the Online Campus. Born and raised in northern California he now resides in San Antonio, TX, with his wonderful wife, Miranda Perez-LePort. You can learn more about him at brianleport.com.[/author_info] [/author]