“You,” he said, “are a terribly real thing in a terribly false world, and that, I believe, is why you are in so much pain.”
That quote belongs in Emilie Autumn’s psychological thriller novel, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls.
It’s the essence, I think, of Robin Williams. He was so real — so passionate, brilliant, empathetic, brave, and sensitive — letting us see the exquisite beauty that is a byproduct of living with your heart exposed to the world.
That kind of behavior is so rare and so risky.
Because it is so hard to be real today.
In 1959, when Viktor Frankl published his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he discussed the research of one of his colleagues, Edith Weisskopf-Joelson, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. She wrote:
Our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.
She believed that Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy — a mental health strategy based on finding one’s life meaning — “may help counteract certain unhealthy trends in the present-day culture of the United States, where the incurable sufferer is given very little opportunity to be proud of his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading.”
Now mind you, that was before the positive psychology movement. Before the happiness craze — the media’s obsession with smiley faces and thousands of publications promising the way to joy. Before mindfulness efforts and Buddhist monks showing us we can meditate our way to bliss. Before all the tomes on the neuroplasticity of the brain and how we can think our way to contentment, one happy thought at a time. Before Facebook and the documentation of happy lives.
Williams may have been bipolar or depressed. He definitely struggled with addiction. But I think the cause of his death was his incredible sensitivity and sensibility that made living in this world so painful.
I get that.
My three best friends are very real and therefore really struggle in this unreal world. All three have told me at times that they would be relieved to get a terminal illness; however, only one suffers from clinical depression. One had a near-death experience as a child and can’t forget the “warm glow” she experienced, and how harsh this world is in contrast. The other is deeply philosophical and religious — the most spiritual man I know — and he just knows in his heart and soul this world is but a preparation for the next.
I know this is a very unpopular view (I’ve been told), but I see life as a 4.4-mile swim across the Chesapeake Bay. It’s hard. It demands perseverance and persistence. The most challenging stretch is between mile two and three (the 40s and 50s) because you are so tired, but realize you have a ton of yardage to go. If the race coordinator swam out to me at 2.5 miles and said I was done — that my race ended at 2.5 — I wouldn’t exactly be disappointed. In fact, if I could summon the energy and tread water, I might do a happy dance.
But I really have to watch what I say with most people, because, when I answer the “How are you?” question honestly. I get the disappointed look a lot, or the pity look, or the what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you look, or the you’re-just-plain-pathetic look. The happiness police will arrest you if you throw out one too many negatives and will sentence you to five hours of gratitude lists.
I mean, the other day I ran into some guy and he asked me about my kids.
“They’re good,” I said.
I thought I was safe with that one.
“Just good? Not great?” he responded.
And I wonder why I’ve needed so much therapy, I’m thinking to myself.
“I meant that they are so bloody fantastic I can’t say ‘superstar’ fast enough! So excellent that I haven’t had a chance to post all of their recent accomplishments on Facebook! Have an incredible, super rest of the afternoon. Because anything less will be disappointing.”
Facebook is, really, an accurate portrayal of our happiness-successful-obsessed culture.
My sister was telling me how she was unfriending some people who were always posting pictures of parties they were invited to, trips they’ve taken, etc. All the “cheers” shots were starting to make her feel depressed.
Over the weekend, she called me all excited. Her daughter won four prizes, including two first places, in a horse show.
“You posted the picture of her with all those ribbons on Facebook, right?” I asked her.
“As soon as I snapped it,” she replied, laughing.
Maybe one of the reasons I loved Robin Williams so much is that he made me feel normal. His impish and compassionate grin inspired me to answer the “How are you?” question with sincerity, even if it created some turbulence. Because his realness was so beautiful, I found the courage to be real too, even though it hurts.
He was a terribly real thing. For that I’m grateful.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.