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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Comedy and Tragedy Unmasked - Reflections on Robin Williams, Depression, and Extroverted People

I was a teenager when Robin Williams first appeared on Happy Days. The role was a cooky one but for some inexplicable reason they spun it into a show. Oh, and what a show. I loved Mork and Mindy, but not just because of the humor. His characterization of Mork as a child-like space alien touched because he wore his heart on his sleeve. Mork was honest, sharing, and curious.

Since then, Robin Williams' movie legacy has been not only extensive but surprisingly deep and particularly broad. His range was tremendous. From manic to sensitive, from restrained to loving, he carried it all. I was flat out stunned at his and John Lithgow's grasp of the characters in World According to Garp. Later on, he impressed in Good Morning Vietnam and brought me to tears in Dead Poets Society. Even in the over the top The Birdcage, he brought an amazing restraint to Armand Coleman/Coldman/Goldman that made his love for his partner more tangible. This was in the day when marriage equality was treated as a novelty, rather than something with truly emotional and loving underpinnings.

Oh, and I nearly fell off the Golden Gate bridge one time as we passed each other on bicycles and I froze in awe - not a smart thing to do on a bicycle over the San Francisco Bay.

Why am I reflecting on my fellow Episcopalian's passing? Because underneath this outward genius was apparently a pained and hurt individual. We can't diagnose from afar, but his substance abuse was likely linked to the underlying emotional burden. He carried his demons with him into his marriages, and we didn't have access to his tears off-screen.

And yet on the screen, he wore the Greek mask of comedy or the Greek mask of drama, in different movies and shows yes, but usually within the same script. He switched them easily and with a sensitive agility. His expressive and malleable face were his masks and he wore it with brilliance.

But in his movies and shows, I always thought that his eyes twinkled, raged, hollowed, and gleamed. They hinted at something that can't be manipulated by a pliable facade. They showed that he truly knew joy, felt loss, understood confusion, and cried with anguish.

And from an inner place that churned these powerful emotions, we find that he eventually succumbed and withdrew his spirit to a place where he won't suffer any more.

Depression isn't sadness. It's a clinical disease. The brain is actually awash with structures and chemicals that make it different than a brain suffering a bad hair day. He hid his depression on screen, but like any good actor knew how to tap into the raw energy of such feelings to drive his work.

On the outside, we saw his masks of comedy and tragedy. On the inside, we can only speculate. But who else among us carries these masks on a daily basis?

I raise my hand. At one point in my life, for over a year, I was in a state that I only afterwards realized should have been treated clinically. Most of the time, I was able to hide the feelings. After all, I'm extroverted, usually friendly (except to the person who cuts me off in traffic), and thinks meetings can be more productive if we're cheerfully enjoying each other's company.

In fact, I was a high school yell leader. With the cheerleaders, we led the stands to cheer for a team whether we were doing well or not. In fact, it was even more imperative to be spirited and cheerful when the going was tough. No doubt, this was a perfect fit for me. But despite all that, it didn't mean the team would win.

So depression to some of us can be masked for the sake of keeping things going. It doesn't however solve our own mental health problems. We reach out in ways we can, but often hide it exceedingly well.

Robin Williams knew to reach out for help on his substance abuse. That we knew. If we only fully grasped that his acting continued well into the night as he walked far off screen.

I pray that I understand this better in myself and in others. Our pastoral care abilities depend just as much on hearing and understanding as in helping. I truly hope that by unmasking the comedy and the tragedy facades, those who need help can be comforted and assisted. The National Suicide Hotline is at 1-800-273-TALK. The Trevor Project hotline for at risk LGBT youth is 866-488-7386. Know these numbers; share them well.

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