Shane Woolley | 5 min read
A few days after the death of Robin Williams, I was watching one of many tribute videos on YouTube in his memory. I had been going through them, trying to process the weight of it all. The videos definitely helped. Each one contributed a well-needed dose of positivity, highlighting his legacy of caring and laughter in lieu of his startling death. I’m not a person who generally concerns myself with celebrity deaths, but his hit hard. All the tributes eased the blow.
Then I scrolled below, to the comments section. Huge mistake. Huge. In case you’re unaware, the YouTube comments section is the sewer of civilization—and just like in any sewer, the worst stuff floats to the top. Underneath a tribute to a man loved by millions were comments denouncing Williams’s depression and suicide. These are the obscene heckles from the back of the audience that we must ignore during such times. But one particular comment, in trying to downplay the tragedy, accidently raised a provocative issue. To paraphrase without the glaring typos, it questioned: “Why does our culture place so much value on actors and comedians? They do nothing productive for society. All they can do is make people laugh and cry.”
Let me tell you why we value people like Robin Williams, you poor, misguided YouTube commenter. We value them because they make us feel. Our minds have enormous capacity for emotion, a capacity which is often suppressed and ignored in so many areas of our lives--the workplace, school, even within our own families. We fear feeling, because feeling makes us care, and caring seems to lead unerringly to pain. To care about a relationship is to feel the pain of its end, just as to care about a grade on a test is to risk the feeling of failure. Yet caring, and the eventual loss that comes with it, is a form of passion, and is what makes our lives memorable. It is this contrasting dichotomy of caring and pain that I believe marked Robin Williams’s life.
His greatest roles show just what a caring man he was. Whether he was playing Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam, Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, or even the Genie in Aladdin, one could see that Robin Williams cared with astonishing vivacity. That’s why he consistently played the parts of the mentor, the father, and the friend. What’s more, he taught us to care with him. Watching Dead Poets Society, I felt as swept up in John Keating’s wonderful madness as his students were. Oh, there’s no doubt he was a fantastic actor, but he wasn’t acting the whole time. Williams’s comedy was genius incarnate because it channeled his true feelings with blatant, hilarious honesty and a passion that could turn on him with equal ferocity. His highs were stratospheric, and his lows, as we all now know, were deep and dark. We were lucky--we got to see him at his best, and he made us all laugh and cry.
Maybe you still ask why all this is valuable. Maybe you still ask why people like Robin Williams, who can contribute only laughter and tears, matter in a world where we fight a daily battle to feed the hungry and cure the ailing. Well, simply put, Williams and his kind give us poetry, beauty, romance, and love. And as the man himself said in Dead Poets Society, “the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life? Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’ That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
Robin Williams has finished his verse. And what a brilliant verse it was.