As shock waves resulting from Robin Williams’ suicide begin to settle, we might reflect upon what we might learn from this tragic event.
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of the classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, reminds us that we may sink into despair and depression unless we find meaning in tragic circumstances. What meanings and wisdom might we gather as we mourn the loss of one of our great actors and humorists — and by all accounts, a kind and generous human being?
We can’t presume to know all the complexities of another person’s heart and mind, and we’ll each be touched in different ways — gathering lessons and meanings that are relevant for us. Here are some life-affirming directions that occur to me as I deal with my own grief and sadness around this loss.
1. Be honest with ourselves.
Saying “yes” to life means noticing and allowing whatever we’re experiencing right now. Being honest with ourselves means affirming ourselves as we are rather than fashioning a self that we think will be attractive to others. Instead of striving to be someone we’re not or comparing ourselves to others (including those who we think might be happier than us or more successful), can we accept and value ourselves as we are? This includes recognizing our dark side and despairing moments — embracing the full range of our humanity (our joys and sorrows) without feeling shame around whatever we happen to be experiencing.
Being and affirming our true self allows us to grow more and more into who we really are. As Rabbi Zusya exclaimed shortly before his death: “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
2. Accept and love ourselves as we are.
Sometimes what we experience is so difficult or painful that we try to push it away. We just want the pain to stop and don’t know where to turn. We may judge ourselves harshly for being in such unspeakable pain. Giving ourselves permission to courageously acknowledge feelings such as sadness, fear, or shame, we connect with ourselves. We begin to find peace by no longer fighting ourselves.
Replacing self-judgment with self-love isn’t easy, but it’s something we can practice. Sometimes it’s easier to be kinder toward others than toward ourselves. Practicing loving-kindness toward ourselves doesn’t mean we’re being selfish; it means that we value and cherish this precious life we’ve been given.
3. Reveal our true self to others.
We cannot know for sure what kinds of conversations Robin Williams had with others and to what extent he revealed his true feelings and struggles. But many people who take their own lives feel isolated in their suffering. It’s so important to have at least one person (hopefully more) with whom we can share with openly and authentically, such as our partner, our friends, a clergy person, or a therapist. And it’s important to listen kindly when people take the risk to open up to us.
Finding the courage to share what’s real for us with selected people allows us to not carry things inside us so tightly. Feeling safe enough to risk opening our authentic heart connects us with people. We feel less isolated and alone, which may help break the cycle of depression.
4. Reach out for contact — and let in the love!
It’s one thing to share our feelings and quite another to actually receive the gift of listening and caring. Oftentimes we have blocks to receiving, especially if we were frequently shamed and criticized growing up. Concluding that we’ve had enough pain, we may now protect a tender and vulnerable place within ourselves.
People may be eager to comfort us and love us if they know we’re hurting, but their caring doesn’t do much good if we don’t allow it to seep into the tender place that needs it. Psychotherapy with someone who’s a good fit for us is often helpful in healing old hurts and traumas that make it hard to let people in.
5. Creating a society where we take care of each other.
The sudden death of a well-loved person awakens us to what’s meaningful in life. We see with fresh eyes how important they’ve been to us. We’re reminded of how precious life is.
Affirming life means creating a society where we safeguard our own and each other’s health — and work cooperatively toward resolving issues that threaten our collective safety and well-being. It means looking out for people who might be isolating and in despair.
People often do a good job of concealing their suffering. Sadly, our pain-avoidant society encourages us to hide our anguish in favor of a happy face. We get the message that something is wrong with us if we’re in pain. We need to create a society where everyone feels safe to have and show their true feelings. Education for emotional intelligence needs to begin in our school systems.
Psychological struggles and planetary ill health are treated more effectively when done in a timely manner. This means facing difficult issues with courage, gentleness, and authenticity. On a larger level, caring for each other means devoting resources to mental health care and treatment options for individuals and our struggling planet.
Perhaps the death of Mr. Williams — and others to come — can remind us about what’s important in life. Just as he served us through sparkling entertainment and philanthropic work, we can honor him by valuing our own precious lives, cherishing our loved ones, and co-creating a society that protects and serves our community and world.
Wikimedia Commons Image of Plato by Marie-Lan Nguyen