Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Death and Heroes

In 2008, one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, took his own life.

I was hurt and angry when I found out; I was also a little scared. This was someone whose work and words I found inspiring and encouraging, and yet he had come to the conclusion that his best option was to opt out. I was just at the beginning of what would turn into several years of private struggles with my own set of adversities, and I was taking his death as something of a warning - that from the outside, you can't tell what someone else's limits are, and that ultimately, we are all alone with our most intimate enemy.

To deal with how I felt, and to process what I was learning about Wallace's private hell and depression in general, I wrote a song called "Get Me Home" (apologies for the demo quality):
"I appreciate the love you give me
But it's not enough
Because it's up to me to get me home."
In the last few years, I've watched other people who you might or might not consider public figures talk about their depression; The Bloggess, Wil Wheaton, and one of my favorites (because I relate so closely to many of her experiences) Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half. They probably aren't what the average person would recognize as "celebrities," but they are brave people who don't hide their pain or their joy; and they want what I want right now: they want you to be alright.

Robin Williams was a celebrity. But like these other folks, and like me, that's not what was important about him. To me, his bravery and honesty, his fear and his unabashed embrace of joy were the things that were important about him. I never met him, and he certainly didn't know who I was, but as I watch the world - the TV, radio, internet, all of my friends and family - react to his loss, I see everyone sharing their favorite moments from his career. Those moments are the evidence of those qualities.

There are the cynics among you who will scoff at another well-off famous person who couldn't handle their too-good life; if that's what you need to feel safe, go ahead and scoff. But for the rest of us - those who are hurting and looking at ourselves and our own struggles with life, I'd like to share one of my favorite moments.

Watch this 5 minute clip from the 1991 Terry Gilliam movie "The Fisher King" and if you haven't seen this film before, pay attention. Then come back here.

When Robin Williams burst exuberantly onto my TV when I was just a kid, he embodied madness. I loved it, because he was putting what I felt inside all the time on display; he was being accepted for being the person that everyone around me told me not to be. He was an epiphany. Even when his jokes didn't work or his character voices fell flat, he still charged brashly out in front of everyone and didn't hold back - and that set me free.

And even at the time, anyone watching him knew - KNEW, without being told - that his life at that time was a drug-fueled piece of performance art. Later, when we saw his Live at the Met performance, he confirmed that. Even though it was a performance, it was honest. You knew he was scared, but instead of hiding from that fear, he turned it into a huge, defiant farce. And many of us watched him work through the self-destructive side of that life and build something better. If you paid attention to his career at all, you gradually realized that while everything he did was a performance, none of it was "fake" - that was why we loved him, even when he was in a colossal piece of crap (looking at you, Popeye).
It was always him up there on the stage running around behaving like a clown, inspiring students and Vietnam soldiers, winning back Neverland, trying to help out Aladdin or trying to love Nathan Lane. Even if you didn't get it or love it, you couldn't deny that he was trying to give you a brilliant gift.

I realized early on that he and I had a lot in common.

That scene in the Fisher King captures this essence. That scene is all about how we perform and put up defenses against getting too close or getting hurt. It says everything that needs to be said about him. His performance - every performance - was a raw display of a man who did not care about the facade he was building. He just loved. Everything he did spoke of that. And he was scared. Everything he did - every joke, every goofy face, every raw, vulnerable moment of quiet showed that he was both terrified and amazed by the world.

As am I.  As are you, if you let yourself feel it.

If you watched that Fisher King clip, but haven't seen the whole film, I'm going to give you a small spoiler. At the end there, when you are seeing him through the window, and he steps to the side, you see his image split into two by the bevel in the glass - that next moment is when his character, Perry, is attacked by "The Red Knight" - the external embodiment of Perry's fear and trauma. It's a confusing and brutal moment of cinema.  When I heard about his death and started seeing my friends and family posting about how surprised they were that Robin Williams of all people would take his own life, that moment is what I thought of. And I wasn't surprised at all.

Because all of us have a "Red Knight". All of us are terrified of this mad, amazing world. Even the brave clowns who dance through the madness are afraid of it. And it can jump out at you from the shadows at the moment when you think you should be your happiest. Your most intimate enemy is always hovering just out of sight.

So I will take two lessons from the life and death of Robin Williams. I will BE joyful, because the world is beautiful and full of love and joy; and I will BE afraid, because it is also dangerous. But I won't let fear of the danger keep me from feeling the joy. I don't let it stop me from loving; and I won't let anyone else pretend that there isn't love and beauty all around just because it feels safer to skip over the scary parts.

And if you need me to, I will help you in any way I can. You may not appreciate how I do it, but I will love you, I will share my amazement with you, and I will sound forth as many barbaric YAWPs as the situation calls for.  (However, unlike Perry, I DO drink coffee.)

The brutally beautiful and honest truth is that it will always be up to you to get you home.  But you're not the only one traveling, and you don't have to fight the Red Knight by yourself.

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