The tragic death of actor and comedian Robin Williams has many of us talking about things that legitimately need attention and discussion. To me, what seems most glaringly obvious in these retrospective conversations and reflections is that we are merely on the foothill of developments in our thinking about suffering and identity, and that none of us, not one of us, knows much of anything at all.
The helplessness that we feel, collectively, is not bad; I believe it can be used to unite and strengthen us so that we can, in time, prevent more suicides from happening by creating a more accepting and proactive environment for those who struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts.
We need, first, to address our helplessness in a way that is blunt and that shocks us out of this haze that we’re in. The Internet has the potential to do so much good, but it can also create the illusion that we’re helping when we’re, instead, spinning around in a perpetual state of helplessness. Key word I want to stress: we’re. It’s comforting to know that we all, at times, feel helpless. Part of the solution to our helplessness is to keep remembering the “we” as we navigate the “I.”
My reaction to the news of Robin Williams’ death happened in three stages:
Minute One: I stood shocked in front of the TV and then went to see what the vast world of Twitter was saying. I started to get frustrated and to combat it posted my self-gratifying condolences and words of wisdom, which nobody read.
Day One: I glimpsed at Facebook, witnessing a proliferation of mourning ensue and then morph into memes that made Williams, “mental illness,” and me feel like an instructive caricature being used to reinforce widespread, cozy ignorance and over-simplification.
Day Two: Depressed and irritated, and craving an intelligent response to death, I read a thought-provoking but one-dimensional article on the way in which comedy is used by suffering individuals as a self-isolating, harmful mask.
Then I tried to write my own article but ended up writing a diatribe full of anger directed at no one and everyone. I felt helpless.
Which leads me to today— Day Three: I’ve made it through the stress and confusion of Day Two and am more determined than ever that we insist on helping one another out of helplessness.
We’ve got to be relentless. Even when the shock of Robin Williams’ death fades away, we need to treat helplessness with community responsiveness and community action by building communities that are inclusive. We have to do this now. Helplessness can and will divide us if we do not acknowledge it and work our way out of it together.
It was the article I read on the mask of comedy, on comedy as a distancing coping mechanism, that got me. It got me thinking about the way in which our identities are tied into our social milieus and how we’re so driven to think one-dimensionally about tragic circumstances as well as about our own helplessness.
We have an opportunity, now, to think multi-dimensionally, but that’s not easy to do. It requires that we let go of our usual comforts, like the belief that there is one simple explanation, one story, one concrete identity, one easy solution.
We all wear social masks at some time or another in our lives; they are our protective outerwear, insulating us from what might be harmful to us. What’s problematic is that sometimes we’re harmful to ourselves and if we’ve shown a lot of people one mask that doesn’t match our colorful complexity, we might feel that we are trapped.
I can’t say what happened to Robin Williams; I leave that to the experts. I can speak about myself and also about where I think, and hope, we can go from here in terms of educating ourselves about identity and difference, as an empathetic human family.
Many, over the past two days, have seemed bewildered about why “a man like Robin Williams” hanged himself, choosing death over life. His identity, what we know of him through his entertainment art, has us searching a mask for answers. It would be more beneficial, I believe, to look to each other and within: what are we doing with identity, are we allowing it to help us or hurt us? Can we recognize the social masks in those around us? Can we see the masks, know that we are all so much more, see beyond the surface, and love one another for all that we cannot fully comprehend?
I’ve always had the sense that Robin Williams was a deep soul. The mask did not hide it from us; it revealed it to us and now we can look back on all of the beauty made from that mask. Only this time, we will look back differently at the art and in it we can see all that was within and beyond it: all the meaning it brings to our understanding of ourselves and one another.
There is another mask that we all wear from time to time, however, that is more problematic; it’s the kind of mask that keeps us in the dark, blind to and scared of the pain and suffering of others. Helplessness. That is the collective mask that keeps us from seeing the complexity of the human condition and psyche and the ways in which we are all connected in this vast world we live in.
I was depressed not only over Williams’ death but over the helplessness I felt and witnessed in my dear friends. Given the outpouring of sincere and kind but seemingly unhelpful, probably naïve, gestures that many of us made immediately after his death, I will just say this, as honestly as possible:
We are not helpless. We do not need to rely on memes to make a change. We can begin by crossing one of the barriers of our own discomfort in order to let the people around us, near and far, know that they are not alone in their struggles.
One of the core lessons that has come out of the past two days for me is my realization that comedy always exists in the midst, in tandem with, tragedy. I wear a ring with a comedy mask beside a tragedy mask on the middle finger of my right hand. I obtained this ring in high school and somehow it has stayed with me all this time. The masks are touching, tilted together because, to my mind, they are meant to be cooperative and balanced.
I don’t think the answer to our helplessness is in my ring. It’s more simple and yet it’s the hardest thing of all: we have to see one another. To love the mask and the person, and to come together with all those around us with a compassionate spirit.
We’re always going to be tricked into feeling helpless, especially on the Internet, and while there’s no truth, I think we do have a choice: regardless of what is true, we can either accept helplessness as a default mode or we can strive, and fight with all our might, toward helping one another.
I’ve struggled with the concept of helping for years. We feel helpless about helping because, and it’s time we face this, helping is not easy. It’s often the furthest thing from comfortable. That’s why we thank people for their offers of help instead of accepting their offers and saying, “Yes, please, come here and help me even though neither of us knows how you will do it.”
I think we can start to turn our offers of help into specific offers of togetherness. Being together and providing understanding are forms of helping.
As we educate ourselves on helping, it’s good to discriminate between helping and fixing. Fixing assumes something is broken. Helping is an attempt to add something. I understand the impulse and the desire to retrospectively “fix” Robin Williams— to wish something could have been done. But beneath that is what we really wish happened: that we could have helped him.
Death takes a toll on us but it also deepens us; at best, it deepens our compassion. The closer we align ourselves with Robin Williams and with any person outside of ourselves, for that matter, the more helpful we become.
Over the past two days, I have aligned myself so deeply with Robin Williams, a person I know only through his art, that I feel I am in it, in the closet, hanging, with him. I have been there, I am there. It’s an exercise in using our imaginations to put ourselves in our neighbors’ shoes in order to wear their masks and to understand their burdens. The more we are there, offering our understanding, the less alone we are.
The cheerleading messages I’ve seen on Facebook and other social media sites, like “Get help!” and “Call a Hotline!” and “Defeat those demons!” and “Take a pill!” are well-placed but they are not helpful. Saying “you are not alone” to someone is not the same as being there, but what else can we do?
I think we can transcend that helplessness by offering our stories and by building communities that are based on compassion, where struggle is not a lone post in a cyber wilderness but a common experience, a common language.
This is a good time to do our interpersonal work against helplessness. We’re not different than Robin Williams. We’re individuals but we’re in the struggle together. Lest we forget the flux that is being alive, death will remind us.
We don’t need to know the how, what, and why, when we could be focusing on our own culpability in the experience of the people in our lives and worlds. We can think about how we might be contributing: we can ask, are we making it easier or harder for others? Sometimes we can’t help but make it harder, but when we can make it easier, we should.
Not so long ago, I was going through a rough patch in my life. During that time, I made my suffering known in every way I knew how. I cried out for help publicly, I reached out, I made it clear as day that I was down in the hole. I posted about it incessantly on Facebook. I even wrote a letter to my friend in which, in order to gain attention, I alluded to suicide.
Those were not good times, but I did learn a hard lesson during them. The lesson: that when you are at your worst and lowest, the people around you likely want to help you but might be too mired down in their own helplessness to do it successfully.
My own experience of angrily watching others stand by helplessly while I struggled taught me about the gripping forms of helplessness that we should avoid. Consider these few bluntly- and painfully-relayed examples of well-intentioned unhelpfulness that occurred during my period of tumult:
When my father was worried about me, he sent me a text message that said, “I’m concerned about your mental state.” I could not tell for sure whether he was making a sarcastic criticism or an unkind but serious observation. Either way, I felt devastated in every way.
I told him to fuck off, deleted the message (though it was forever etched in my mind), and immediately coped by incorporating his corporate use of “mental state” into my ongoing inner comedic dialogue, the shtick that is so kind to me at times that it does what my father never could and, in fact, travels through time and space to rescue me.
It’s not that my dad’s a mean guy. He was a good guy who felt uncomfortable and helpless.
Some former friends of mine, who sought out my sister when they feared for my “mental state,” were not mean guys, either. They were, like my dad, helpless guys trying to help from within the bounds of helplessness. Their intentions, like all the inspirational mourning memes dedicated to Williams on Facebook, were good.
But my former friends did a lot more damage than good when they dehumanized me by reaching out to my sister. I was so “other” to them, so abnormal, that they could not treat me as their equal and share with me their concerns.
Then, when I called my dear interventionist former friend to share my struggle with her and to let her know that I knew about the meeting, I could hear her speaking with me in a new, delicate voice. I sensed immediately the divide: I knew we were worlds apart. I knew from her tone that she was no longer speaking to a friend: she was talking with “someone who was ill.”
Her words were not comforting; they were words of misunderstanding and judgment, as well as fear. The words that were intended to help were the same words that wounded and made my isolation more profound. The conversation ended shortly after she said, condescendingly, in response to my meager defense of myself and claims of self-improvement, “That may be the case, Jess, but something’s not right. Something’s not right.”
She was implying that the problem was within me. That I was the problem. She said nothing that made me feel like she would even for a second contemplate what it was like being in my shoes. Her words in my time of need, instead of being the ones to rescue me and urge me toward help, were the ones that stay with me to this day to haunt me during my worst nights and lowest lows.
Even now, whenever I’m feeling low, “something’s not right” emerges out of my despair to reemphasize my failure to be normal. She was taken by helplessness and in it forgot her own suffering and her own struggle when she labeled me, via implication, as “wrong.” Helplessness somehow separated us, making her forget that she and I are equals.
I am here and you, who are reading this, are here, and so we’re not helpless. We can exit the building of helplessness together. When we reach out to our loved ones and to beloved strangers, we need to remember the power of our words. It is so hard to do. We’ll never do it perfectly, but when we fuck up, we should apologize and try to do better. My sister fucked up by going behind my back. She knows it and she apologized to me. My father fucked up. He has not apologized but I believe he knows it. My former friend remains ignorant of her misstep, but maybe someday she’ll understand.
I’m sharing these moments from my dark times, which are many, because I don’t want to say to you: I am there for you. I want to say to you: I am you. I am one of you. I can’t say it to Robin, nor can you, but we can say it to each other, here and now.
We are together in our suffering and our struggle; in it, we are the same. We’re alone yet we’re together. Together, we need to stop “fixing” (we’ll only fuck it up), to stop dumbing down and over-simplifying our explanations for human behavior, and to start sharing our individual stories of struggle in order to build connections.
There was a deep man behind that comedic mask and there was a lighthearted clown beneath that tragic struggle. We don’t have to know everything about Robin to know that we are Robin: we are with him in the darkness as much as we are in the light.
The masks he wore were glimpses into the nuances of identity. Let it be a lesson to us not to trust in any one mask but to approach with fascination all of them, expecting to be surprised and being wise enough to not being surprised by what’s surprising.
Something is not right with us, with each of us, with all of us. But, at the same time that we’re infinitely fucked up, something is also quite right about us; we simply have not yet figured out how to articulate it, but we’ll keep trying.
Outside of helplessness, we can do a lot. We can call that former friend or sister or father up and give their inner dialogue a little run for its money (or debt); we can tell them what they should know but might have forgotten: that, indeed, there’s something incredibly, undeniably right about them and that from this point on, their burdens are shared burdens.