Robin Williams and the Tragedy of the Comedian

The recent death of  iconic actor and comedian Robin Williams has understandably lead to much shock and sadness, especially in light of the fact that he had committed suicide. Needless to say, there are no shortage of eulogies and reflections related to his legacy, accomplishments, and characters — what one would expect when such a titanic and beloved personality departs so suddenly — as well as discussions centered on his lifetime struggle with addiction and depression (which was nonetheless masked or mitigated in the public eye by his consistent lightheartedness and energy).

While I can go at length about this matter myself, or share a trove of excellent pieces covering everything there is to know and appreciate about Williams, I will stick to one that I found especially informative and relevant.

Over at Cracked, David Wong wrote an engaging piece that explored why it is that so many energetic, humorous, and seemingly well-adjusted people — celebrity or otherwise — end up as unlikely victims of suicide. I recommend you read the whole article, as it does a good job of mixing in thoughtful musings with the magazine’s characteristic wit and humor (which in this instance I found appropriately more tactful than usual). The crux of it is this:

Every time [a funny person makes] a joke around you, they’re doing it because they instinctively and reflexively think that’s what they need to do to make you like them. They’re afraid that the moment the laughter stops, all that’s left is that gross, awkward kid everyone hated on the playground.

I can attest to these both by observation and experience. I am very insecure about my personality and personal merits, which is one reason I indulge in sharing knowledge or being a clown, both online and off — it makes me feel valuable and desired, even though I also subsequently feel terrified of the “real” me being discovered and subsequently disliked.

Thankfully, my own struggles with self-loathing and the subsequent depression have never been bad enough to lead to addiction or self-destructive behavior. In fact, as I have gotten older, I have graciously been made to feel very accepted by many people despite my flaws, which has helped me passed my personal hangups, slowly but surely.

Speaking more broadly, one big point to glean from the article — and from the many similar observations of suicide victims appearing well on the surface — is that most people suffer in silence. Even those of us without depression or a serious mental illness feel the need to mask our hardships, internalize our negative feelings, and opt not to be a “burden” to those around us.

For many people, the alternative coping mechanism is to act out, to find worth and validation as someone entertaining and fun. One finds a purpose in brightening others’ days so that they do not suffer the same way you do. Imparting laughter and happiness is a way to gain social acceptance while also feeling like you’re doing some good in the world, which is always a nice feeling no matter what your mental state.

It is thus little wonder that so many troubled people gravitate to behaving or embracing seemingly contradictory behavior. It gives meaning and uplights their moods and others’. It is also a way to lighten the pain and burden of depression by making it more bearable, or even funny. What else is there to do with so much intractable sadness and hopelessness — aside from escaping into mind-altering substances, or ending your mind altogether.

Obviously, not all happy and humorous people harbor deep-seated and often fatal pain. Rather, it is that not all sad and pained people seem to clearly be that way. Symptoms of depression manifest in many different ways, as do the ways that people deal with them, so generalizations should be made with caution. But clearly, there is a pattern of suicides being unexpected and unlikely.

The observation that sufferers of depression are often those who we least expect is somewhat of a cliche, but clearly it is something that needs reminding. Too often we remain shocked and surprised when someone like Williams commits suicide, but maybe that reflects the strong sociocultural pressure to keep one’s sadness buried as much as possible. Maybe it testifies to how strong the stigma of depression, suicide, and addiction are, such that people would rather put on a mask and trudge through it at their own risk, rather than let it become exposed or admitting to a problem.

Of course, these are all just visceral musings and generalizations, not any sort of sociocultural prescription. Tragedies like this naturally elicit a lot of self-reflection and soul-searching, perhaps because there is something fundamentally relatable with how people choose to cope with their struggles, whether through humor, lashing out, or addiction.

My thoughts on all this are incomplete. Expect more later my friends. Until then, feel free to share your own ideas as usual.




Reflections Upon Mild Sadness

I fell asleep sorrowful, filled with a vague foreboding of coming trouble…That precaution of love against death, even in the presence of abounding life, caused my thoughts to wander all night about those scenes where I had passed, without knowing it, the happiest hours of my life.

— Jorge Isaacs, Maria

It has been a while since I have written a personal post, so I know it must be strange to see these sad musings amid sociopolitical topics. But as the tagline says, this blog is about wherever my mind takes me, and right now it is a sad place.

I have been feeling quite a bit of melancholy lately, a sort of mild, back-of-the-mind type of sadness that keep resurfacing throughout the day and especially at night. I have no idea what has triggered — there is almost never a clear reason for it — but I know that a lot of nostalgia is emerging as well; I miss the simpler and more naive times; old hangouts, friends, first-experiences. 

And while I indulgently reflect upon the past, I start to dwell on the “what ifs” and “what could have beens” — a futile endeavor, I know, but I cannot help myself. I know I was younger and stupider back then (as we all our), I know that I am looking back with the benefit of hindsight, with information I could not have possible known at the time of my dumb, regrettable decisions. But I nonetheless still go down all these hypothetical paths that I will never truly know.

Ultimately (and graciously), these feelings pass quickly; as I said, it is all very mild and subdued. But it still lingers to some degree, and I worry if this is simply the way I am. For as long as I can remember, I have always been nagged by some sort of worry or melancholy even when I am otherwise happy. Maybe it can be attributed to the intrusive thoughts characteristic of OCD, or maybe it is the clinical depression or dysthymia that I suspect I have. I do not know, but I suspect I am going to have to get used to it.

Thankfully, I find myself handling these things better than I once did. Life goes on, and I continue to find little ways to cheer up and move forward — from the simple joys of green tea, good music, and a walk through the park, to deeper focus on goals, fitness regimens, and planned trips. I am mercifully surrounded by potential and opportunity. I just need to find the courage to take action and overcome the fear of what if; I just need to embrace the adventure of the unknown rather than dwell on ephemeral and pointless nostalgia. 

Writing these like this certainly helps bring clarity and organization to my disjointed and intangible thoughts. Thanks for reading my friends. I hope you are all well.