“I’ve sent my brightest and bravest men to search for this [grail]. How did you find it?” the King asked.
The Fool laughed and said, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.”
— The Fisher King
Like so many others, I’m saddened by Robin Williams’ suicide. As someone who has managed lifelong depression, myself, I always appreciated the laughter he brought into my life, as well as the human face he brought to coping with mental illness.
Despite that he was a celebrity with loads of money and opportunity, he never hid his internal reality. Williams was very candid about the fact that no matter what was going on in his life, addiction and depression always loomed. He lit every project he touched and made the whole world laugh for decades, while he wrestled himself in shadow.
It’s not a fresh story at all–talent rises to incredible celebrity, produces spellbinding art, often provides an equally entertaining personal life, then eventually goes up in flames. We’ve seen it before in Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Lee Thompson Young, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and so many others. We watch it play out in a daily serial with Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes.
Such is a sob story in which an adoring public doesn’t acknowledge any accountability or responsibility, yet we tune in to the entertainment news shows and retweet the gossip of their private lives. We can’t quit this dangerous brand of reality entertainment, and we don’t make the connection between a set up for failure and an industry that seems to crank out mental illness. We don’t see our own role in the cycle. We don’t see that it is a cycle.
In shamanic cultures is the animistic understanding that when an individual is sick, his or her community bears the wound, also. There’s no such thing as isolating someone for healing. Rather, attention is given to the entire collective, to treat the root cause of the wound, through every thread intertwined in it, all the way down to the individual. In this way, a village is healed. It’s not a new technique. In fact, it’s ancient, and cutting edge.
None of us are immune from mental illness. While we’re beginning to accept it as medical and spiritual illness, we also need to remember that it’s a collective one. We can’t expect the individuals of famedom to straighten their lives out when we get so much out of their downfall. We can’t expect to create a culture of support for each other without seeing the places where we undermine it for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our idols. It’s all connected.
That’s the most challenging fact about the death of Robin Williams. We knew. His industry knew. He’s the one who told us, long ago.
It’s time to realize that suicide isn’t failure. It isn’t the failure of the person who died, or of loved ones to have intervened. Suicide is illness.
Likewise, depression isn’t a battle that we win or lose. Depression is illness, often chronic and invisible. More can always be done; however, depression brings a state of despair that convinces us otherwise. In that despair we’re all connected, and from that wound we have to create tribe in which we’re accountable to each other. We have to be able to talk about what we’re going through, what we’re feeling. We have to participate and listen along the spectrum of wellbeing and depression, not just when it’s turned grim. If there’s failure in the factors of mental illness, it’s that lack of dialogue and community.
We need each other, and we need compassion for each other and ourselves, all the time. It’s easy to feel it for someone who’s having problems. However, we deal in invisible illness every day. We can’t wait for the luxury of symptoms, before we show that we care. We owe it to each other to realize we’re all thirsty, and that every one of us bears the cup. Actively participating in community isn’t a mindfulness task we learn to take care of ourselves. It’s a measure in compassion we engage to save our species from itself.
Specifically with celebrity, there’s dialogue needed in how we as a culture chew up and spit out artists who burn at both ends, geniuses who dazzle us at great personal expense, because they’re so gifted at acting through their demons that they make us forget our own, they make us forget they’re human. They make us forget they’re tribe.
I wish peace for his family, and a resounding barbaric yawp to his healing heart.