I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Robin Williams died. I was shocked, and still that shock remains with me. I wasn’t sure why Williams’ death affected me so much—in fact, just earlier this year, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, another actor that I adore, died (under very similar circumstances, both surrounding their addictions), and though it was sad, it didn’t feel personal.
I had to do some personal exploration. As I watched videos of Robin Williams’ comedy, famous scenes in movies, interviews, and even Ocarina of Time commercials (which warmed my heart the most, since that particular Zelda game means a lot to me), I was struck by how meaningful this man’s life was to me and many others. The community of comedians and actors surrounded him with tribute on Twitter, and even as I observed it, their compassion and love was so palpable. I’m not always so sure how honest the celebrities are being, but in their isolated positions it isn’t surprising that they long to connect with others, just like the Body of Christ fosters for me. Even surrounded by such love and connection, that was not enough to sustain him.
For me, Robin Williams literally grew me up. I didn’t grow up with him like Letterman did, of course (he aired a pretty great tribute). Of course, he was the Genie in Aladdin. I still love that movie even if it did stereotype Arabs like me. Great soundtrack, and a great song by Robin Williams. What a fun moment in my childhood.
When I was nine, on vacation in Williamsburg, Virginia, I had a really bad bout of the flu. My parents’ in their Middle Eastern conservatism had previously forbid us from going to movie theaters. All of the stereotypes of theaters being bastions for making out were reinforced by my parents, so going to the movies was a no-go. As my dad would do often, he merely changed his mind, so we all went to see Jumanji together. I was sick-to-my-stomach before and after the movie, but during the movie I was mesmerized. I haven’t seen the movie in a long time, but again, in a sense, he introduced me to movies and showed me something really special.
I remember watching Mrs. Doubtfire with my Canadian cousins and parents. It’s funny, because it was also a first of mine, the first PG-13 movie I watched. I’m not sure I totally understood it, but I laughed and cried even, as we watched that infamous court room scene and the disaster in the restaurant. Robin Williams really struck me in this movie as a great comedian and actor. He is always so heart-breaking in his roles—and even in this one, we might be able to gaze more deeply into his soul. One scene in particular showed him frustrated at the simple cartoon roles he was getting and the messages they were sending kids.
Robin Williams blessed more than one generation and offered them his great gifts and talent. The nation, and the world in part, was beside itself when it found out the news. But even in that storm of success, lied a man with deep sins that enslaved him. He was open about them, too. Addiction ransacked his life more than one time. Stuck between the prison of addiction and the prison of a career that never seemed to be good enough, Williams took his own life. It really is unbelievable. That even in this world, after even our great empty basins are filled with material and career success, there is still despair that can haunt us to the point of taking it all away. Williams wasn’t just interested in his own success either, he raised money for homeless people with Billy Crystal, he was known for visiting soldiers in Afghanistan too.
Robin Williams, who was often vulnerable in front of the screen, was caught in his own storm. This was no more clear than in a movie that, to this day, impacts me greatly: Good Will Hunting. A great collage of the trouble of youth in poverty and their lack of poverty; the importance of talking about how you feel and who you are in order to heal; the power of friendship and connection; and even the significance of love and doing something greater than yourself. The movie touched me in college, and after we just viewed it again the other night in honor Robin Williams it touched me again in all sorts of new ways.
Even as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, we get a glimpse of the inner-turmoil that Williams must have felt as an addict. Look at how Will Hunting tears him apart in this scene, where he calls him out on the false ways he has tried to solve the trauma of the death of his cancer-stricken wife. Sean tries to get out of his storm through his career, or at least Will makes that argument. He leads a meaningful life, but he needs more. So does Will. Sean offers Will a listening ear and a path to a greater life, away from Southie and the pain of his childhood, but even then Sean needs more than a career to fill him up—he needs love. But not just the fleeting love of a romance, or the trying love of marriage.
How much deeper does our hope need to be than that? Can any of us expect to influence as many people as Robin Williams did? Is success the stick by which we measure who we are?
But I am comforted by the trouble I feel in my daily life because I know Jesus felt it too. Jesus gives me hope in the middle of my storm. It is hard to believe that when you’ve been told that your faith might just take away all of the negative feelings you have. It takes more than just a cerebral acknowledgement of the facts of the Gospel to find the true hope of Jesus. Partnering with Jesus to explore your inner self is a crucial step to overcoming the trouble the world will offer us. It’s a journey and a process.