I told myself I would not jump on the “What can we learn about life (or business or blogging or whatever other crazy thing) from Robin Williams?” bandwagon. That’s crass and gross and manipulative, to reduce his amazing life to a 5-step, self-promotional, how-to blog post.
And yet I am devastated, as many of you probably are, by the realization that this gentle, sensitive, creative genius will not be making us laugh in real time anymore.
But I also know that some of the best comedic actors of this generation—and past ones—came from a place of deep pain and sadness. It was what made them so good at connecting with us. They understood that whole range of emotions because, though they masked it well, they felt them every single day.
Jonathan Winters, who happened to be Williams’ idol and mentor, suffered from years of severe depression, as did John Cleese in the early 1970s. Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Peter Sellers were frequently depressed. Jim Carrey was treated for depression off and on for years. Owen Wilson, Richard Pryor and Drew Carey all attempted suicide.
But why did Robin Williams leave us?
None of us will ever know for sure, but lots of people have their theories. Barry Levinson, who directed Williams in the first of his four Oscar-nominated performances, as the Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam, articulated what I couldn’t put into words myself and he makes a lot of sense to me:
What makes his death so difficult to understand is the question ‘How can someone so funny be so sad?’ We can reflect on it, try to understand it, analyze it, but nothing will truly answer the question. The fragility of the man, his sensitivity, his deep feelings for life…all that allowed for him to carve his comedic sensibilities, were the same feelings that took his life.
He felt too much perhaps?
Are depression and HSP connected?
I have written about this before, this condition of many creatives. The same characteristics that make them such good painters, writers, and actors, because they are such keen observers of the human condition, are the ones that make them too sensitive in a sometimes heartless world.
I do not know if Robin Williams was an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) but I suspect that he was. HSPs are wired differently neurologically, so their senses are always on alert. The empathy they feel that makes them brilliant artists also becomes a weight that is sometimes too difficult to bear.
And if you mix that with substance abuse and depression (which may in themselves be byproducts of feeling too much and too deeply—and needing to regularly “disconnect”), it can be a lethal combination.
Thanks, Robin, for touching our hearts
I leave you with a more positive message. I believe that people who feel as much as Robin Williams did are a gift to the world. They touch our hearts in indescribable ways and in making us laugh, also help us see what connects us as humans.
Let us listen one more time to a man who gave so much to the world. Here is a video of Robin Williams’ first appearance of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on October 14, 1981, with a peek into his vulnerable soul: