Robin Williams: The Anguish of Identity
Man I’m just tired and bored with myself …
Message keeps getting clearer
Radio’s on and I’m moving ‘round the place
I check my look in the mirror
I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face
– Bruce Springsteen, Dancing in the Dark
The Myth We Loved
We did not love Robin Williams because he was the most hilarious man in the English-speaking world. We did not love him because he was a person of genius: stunningly intelligent, epically inventive. Nor did we love him because we treasured his compassion, sweetness, honesty, and loyalty.
We did love these qualities. We loved his preternatural capabilities. We loved his extraordinary craftsmanship.
Most of all, though, we loved his individualism. No one else was remotely like him.
He was not just unique. In our lifetime, no other professional entertainer has seemed so secure in his singularity, so fascinated by his exceptionality, so comfortable with his extreme, seemingly untrammelled personhood. We loved Robin Williams for many reasons, but primarily because he seemed to incarnate and exult in the experience of identity.
We were right about his radical individuality. We were wrong about his comfort with it.
The Real Robin
Robin Williams made mesmerizing art from his experience of identity. But his shocking suicide makes it unmistakably clear that he could not tolerate and, in the end, could not inhabit his individualness.
We always knew he was in terrible pain. We would need to be insensate to have misconstrued the sorrow in those wan, weary eyes, the misery in the lines that ravaged his open, forthright face, the suffering that shaped his comedy, the torment that fueled his madcap, sidesplitting hilarity.
Comedy, Genius, And Pain
This is universally true of humor. It is true of farce, above all: the slapstick, burlesque, buffoonery, at which Robin excelled.
Even while we guffaw, we know we are laughing at life, society, civilization, other people, and, especially, ourselves so that we will not have to shriek or scream or weep.
And even while we are admiring brilliance, wondering at its miraculousness, we know pain invariably accompanies genius. Incubates it, forms it, funnels it, comprises its essence, inspires and infuses its activity.
Artistic genius in particular.
It is a commonplace to associate creativity with neurosis.* There can be no question that imaginative invention almost always proceeds, if not from psychoneurosis, certainly from suffering. Usually, though not always, from acute discomfort in childhood.
Deeply contented people rarely react to the world with inventive genius. Pathbreakers, pioneers, innovators, originators commonly live in intense, immitigable, inexpressible discomfort and sorrow.
The Anguish Of Identity
Genius varies widely. Pain does not.
Sometimes pain has physical origins. Chronic physical pain is always oppressive, and can be horrid.
Worse, much worse, is psychological pain. Spiritual tribulation. Internal affliction, inflicted by our belief that we are inadequate, unsuccessful, not worthy of love, repulsive, repugnant.
In all his roles, comedic and dramatic, we always could see how vulnerable Robin was. How he yearned for acceptance and approval. Hungered for admiration, affection, companionship, inclusion.
We could see this wondrously gifted person lived with severe depression, anxiety, and grief. We knew he repeatedly, sometimes addictively, sought relief in liquor, remedy in narcotics, and found these bathetic recourses even more devitalizing than their source sufferings.
We knew he tried to stop his substance dependencies and behavioral addictions, did stop, off and on, but could not stop the sweeping sadness, the cataclysmic despair, that was elemental to his genius and formative of it.
We are not geniuses but we all understood Robin’s despair, and to one extent or another we all share it.
We know this desolation as the anguish of identity.
The preposterousness of being who we are. Dancing in the dark, as Bruce Springsteen calls it in his masterful song.
The agony of being inveterately and irreducibly who we are. This face, this hair, this physique, this mind, these imperfections, these limitations of insight, these infirmities of will.
This incompleteness. These failures of the potentiality we can imagine, even envision, but cannot construct.
T.S. Eliot, who knew everything there is to know about the relationship of genius and suffering, once said that life cannot meet the requirements of the human imagination.
I think the opposite is true. I think we believe that it is we who cannot measure up to the profundity and purity we see all around us. We cannot equal the magnificence and beauty we everywhere behold. We cannot accord with the glory or deserve the grace that abounds all about and, at times, within us.
Robin Williams knew so very much. He gave us incomparable laughter, excitement, pleasure, and hope.
As we exulted in his humor, his theater, his consciousness, his character, we imagined that he joyfully had embraced his wondrous identity. If he could do this, we thought, perhaps we might too.
No Blame, No Shame
We were right that Robin was a wonderful man, but we were wrong that he was a happy person. A person who had solved the problem of living in calm and confident pleasure with his own identity.
The truth is he could not bear being who he was. In the end, he could not allow who he was any longer to exist.**
Since hearing the tragic and terrifying news that he had intentionally caused his death, I cannot stop recalling the pivotal scene in that sublime film, Good Will Hunting. The breathtaking passage when Robin, playing Dr. Sean Maguire, performing him luminously, repeatedly tells Will: It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault, son. It’s not your fault.
We thought it was the performer who knew what that character knows.
It was not. This was a role, written by another, staged by a great actor. Robin did not know in life what Sean knew in fiction.
Robin Williams knew so much. But he did not know his suffering was not his fault. It was not his fault. It was not his fault.
He did not know there is no fault.
He did not know he was born into in a universe not of blame and shame, but infinite love.
He did not know that all of us, every one of us, are utterly lovable and utterly loved. Loved without reference to our imperfections and incompleteness. Loved without judgment about our frailties and failings.
Robin was a brilliant artist, but he did not know that none of us, no performer, no politician, no spellbinder, no lover, can create or coerce love, deserve or win love.
We do not need to. We are loved simply as we are, because we live in a universe that is all-knowing, all-forgiving, all-embracing, always providing, always accepting, spilling over with immeasurable abundance, meaning, beauty, pleasure, and peace.
If we will but look and listen. See and hear. Seek and receive.
The suicide of Robin Williams rends our hearts because we loved him. We loved him better than he could love himself.
We thoroughly understand how difficult it is to be human. We know the anguish of identity. But we loved what we knew of Robin’s identity. We loved his humanity more than he himself could.
I have no doubt the bountiful, beautiful soul of the human being we knew as Robin Williams lives still, and forever more will, in a dimension of existence we cannot fathom or name but one day will join.
May Robin Williams, this infinitely gifted, infinitely dear soul, discover now, in the eternal dimension, what he always could have known whilst he lived amongst us.
May he discover that he is lovable and is most deeply loved, because he lives in a universe of infinite, unquestioning love.
As do we all.
I believe we are born into life to learn this truth. To learn that we all exist in infinite and eternal love.
* The best essay I ever have read on this subject is Lionel Trilling’s “Art and Neurosis,” in The Liberal Imagination (London and New York, 1964). In Moses and Monotheism, Freud memorably declares: “Genius is well known to be incomprehensible and irresponsible.”
** Robin Williams’ wife has announced that he recently was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. If you have this illness, or if you know anyone who does, please read my cherished friend Jim Atwell’s book, Wobbling Home: A Spiritual Walk With Parkinson’s [Square Circle Press, 2011].