When I heard about Robin Williams’s death, the first thing I thought of was the scene in Aladdin where the genie is finally freed from his lamp and bounces around the sky, erupting like a volcano of light, screaming, “I’m free!” I hope that was a sign. I hope that was my go-to thought because something in me was tapping into a shred of cosmic truth.
I’m not usually one to take celebrity deaths personally, but for some reason, Robin William’s hit me hard, maybe because he was so kind and gentle, so funny, so warm, so light. Mostly so light. Watching him perform was like turning on a lamp in a dark room. But like the genie in Aladdin, being everyone else’s dream-come-true cost him something.
He was my friend. He sat with me in my living room night after night, year after year, making me laugh, giving voice to my hopes and fears and dreams, helping me feel connected in some way to humanity at large. But I couldn’t return the favor. I was not his friend. When I was lonely, I could slip him into my DVD player and feel his light fill the house. He couldn’t slip me into his DVD player. He died alone. Still, I mourn him as if I have lost someone whose soul was tied to mine, because strangely, through the miracle of modern technology, his was.
I see similar responses all over social media. It seems that almost everyone has been impacted by his death in some way. For some, it seems to have induced hopelessness. For others, rage. For others, nostalgia. We all need to feel there are solid pockets of safety and kindness in a sometimes horrifying and unpredictable world. I think for many of us, Robin Williams was one of those pockets.
I find I am not surprised at his suicide, not because I knew of his history of depression and addiction, but because I have been lucky enough to know more than my fair share of brilliant minds. A brilliant mind is a hurricane, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. What you see–those momentary, impossibly beautiful glimpses of sunlight flashing on waves–is only a fraction of the story. Beneath the waves, a deep, wondrous, and sometimes terrifying ocean crashes. When we see the evidence of the darkest depths, we must not be too quick to judge. Aren’t those deep dark places in existence because the sunlight cannot reach them? Deep, dark things grow warm with the light of love. So even if you don’t understand, extend compassion to the drowning.
I do not believe death is the end for Robin Williams, or anyone. I absolutely respect your right to disagree with me and to reject what I feel to be true. For me, my personal answers have been hard won. The conclusions I have come to are not easy, and perhaps they are unique to me. Perhaps we all receive our own varied answers in our own time. My path to heaven has led me through miles of hell, so I never want to presume to underestimate the depth of another’s pain and emptiness, or to dismiss these things with platitudes, nor do I dare impose my pat answers on a set of questions too complex for any human mind to comprehend. I say what I’m about to say only with the hope of injecting a tiny sliver of light into the darkness of the day.
I used to suffer from severe depression, and sometimes, honestly, still do, though for the most part, I have found a deep, abiding peace and joy I couldn’t have imagined existed years ago. In my early twenties, I had a moment when I lost all hope. I was lying in a bathtub, holding a razor blade to my wrist, ready to end my life. In lieu of cutting, I screamed, “God, help me!” Instantly, the phone rang. It was my mother. She said, “What’s wrong? God just told me to call you.” I can look at Robin Williams, and other people closer to me who have made the decision to end their lives and say, with great compassion, and no small amount of gratitude, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I often wonder what would have happened to me, to my children, to my family, to my friends had I not screamed those desperate words, had I decided to make a few swift slices with a razor blade instead. Sometimes, the difference between death and life is only a few seconds.
But for whatever reason–maybe because I still had a shred of hope left in me–I didn’t move the razor blade. I moved my lips instead. And something heard me. Either that, or I was involved in one of the luckiest coincidences of all time, as was my mother, who imagined she heard God telling her something was wrong with her daughter at exactly the moment her daughter was screaming for God’s intervention.
This is not the only moment in my life when I have reached out and found an invisible and infinitely loving hand holding mine. I don’t have the mental capacity to understand or define exactly what is out there, but I know that it is beautiful, and that it heard me when I screamed, and that I am alive now because it did. And I know that even if I had cut instead of screaming, it still would have loved me, that I would have been taken into arms that understood my pain more perfectly than I ever could.
And I know in my soul, the way I knew the great loves of my life when I first saw their faces, the way I knew that my father was going to die, the way I knew I would be a writer someday, that we all are loved by something too vast and exquisite for words. That part of me that knows things it shouldn’t know is convinced we are not alone. It’s OK to hurt. It’s OK to despair. It’s OK precisely because we are not alone, because we are being upheld, even in our weakest, most broken moments, by a vast and unfathomable, but perfect, love. This was not the defining moment for Robin Williams, because whether you believe in one life, many lives, or eternal life, one moment of despair cannot define the infinite and intricate topography of a human soul.
Fly in peace, Robin Williams. I did not know you, but I feel like I did, and so do millions of others. That alone is a testimony to the beauty of your soul, regardless of what you were driven to do in a moment of darkness when none of us who considered you a friend could be there to hold your hand. I have no doubt you have more answers than I ever could now, and that you understand to a degree which I cannot just how boundless love really is. Thank you for brightening this sometimes dark world with your lovely light. Maybe it is just my admittedly vivid artist’s imagination, but I can almost hear you now, screaming, “I’m free!” genie-style. Set that horizon on fire like it’s Independence Day.Because in my truest heart, I know for you, it is.