Get Off My Lawn

I can't tell if he's laughing or crying.

Robin Williams, Palestinians, and Proximity

How can anyone possibly spend any time and attention fretting over the death of Robin Williams while children are dying in Palestine?

We hear this kind of indictment every time a celebrity dies when children somewhere in the world are suffering and dying. And to a certain extent I understand the reasoning behind the question; everyone understands that the suffering of children should be more important, or at least occupy more space in the collective culture, than the life and death of a celebrity. But this almost never happens, so indictments are made and proclamations of the demise and fall of the western world are shouted from soapboxes, or keyboards, and we all take a moment to feel ashamed.

So allow me a moment to explain why the death of Robin Williams occupies in my mind the same amount of space as, if not more than, that of children killed in Gaza. And that is proximity. I am closer to Robin Williams than I am to any one person in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this has as much to do with the randomness of where I was born as anything else.

I never found Robin Williams terribly funny (gasp!), but I did find him to be a talented dramatic actor. Throughout my lifetime, I watched stories in pictures acted out by Robin Williams in such films as The World According to Garp, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting, and The Night Listener. Much of how I learn about the world is through story, whether read, watched, or listened to. Robin Williams was someone whom I had seen in movies, and I grew to appreciate the way in which he chose to act out the story someone else had written him. His face was familiar to me; and his face, his body, his physicality, is linked to stories that I ingested, and as with almost all stories of any quality, helped me to form my perceptions of the world. Sometimes the ideas I had in my developing brain were not yet articulated clearly until I saw or read the scenarios of conflict and resolution, or lack thereof. Some of these ideas were developed in and linked to Robin Williams’s work, so I naturally make a myriad of links and associations between my development and the stories that contributed to that development. Some of these fence posts are more important than others, some are downright frivolous and silly, but I believe that all of them are contributing to my identity and how I see myself fitting into the world.

Robin Williams

Of course I find the death and suffering of children horrible. But due to a geographic gulf and a cultural distance, the abhorrence I feel is more abstract than visceral. I can watch the news and, by simply being a human capable of compassion, I can sympathize with the plight of anyone in a war zone. I am not necessarily going to react the same way emotionally as I would if, for instance, it were my family and friends in an armed conflict three provinces east of Alberta. Nor should I. If I did I’d be an emotional wreck and a blubbering idiot for most of every day. When 9/11 happened my reaction was strong, and later it dawned on me that one of the reasons may have been because many of those killed and injured were people who lived in close proximity to me and had a shared culture. These were people who looked like me and thought like me, and we had many shared collective cultural experiences. To a certain extent these people were me.

The fact that Robin Williams committed suicide is also a reason his death occupies a bit more real estate in my mind than it would otherwise. Suicide is something that has been a dominating shadow in my family. Three of my uncles committed suicide. These were men who were raised in the Catholic Church when church was a defining element in the growth and development of an individual. The stories that helped them develop their identity were from the Bible. A dominating theme of sin is repentance and forgiveness. Except with suicide. With suicide there is no repentance, no forgiveness. You will go to hell. Yet despite this, they chose to kill themselves. Fear as a motivator did not prevent them from leaving this world.


Robin Williams had achieved, by every metric in the western world, fantastic success–money, fame, adulation, all of it. Yet success as a motivator did not prevent him from taking his life.

Another link that I make is that perhaps these men suffered from defective brain chemistry, or some other physical debilitation we have not yet been able to identify or completely understand. I’m thinking of Robin Williams in the context of the suicide of my uncles, and I wonder if I have inherited some of that genetic material.

When I think of the life and death of Robin Williams, I guess I’m really thinking of all the links and associations he is a part of in my life, and this is at some level automatic simply because of how I consume text in Canada at this time in history. The fact that I have more associations with Robin Williams than I do with a conflict in the Middle East does not make me a bad person but a person who has a healthy, functioning mind that can only do what it can do, and to expect more might be something that only happens in the movies.

Palastinian Conflict


Categories: Pop Culture

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38 replies

  1. Thank you sir. The opening line of your article actually scared me into thinking that you would be one of…those people. Your words ring true! Shame that you have personally experienced suicides in your lifetime. My condolences. It is truly a shame that some great people are lost in this manner…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I also think desensitization has something to do with as well. We often hear about horrible things happening in the Middle East; Syria, Israel, Gaza, Afghanistan, Etc. How many years has conflict been going on in this region, sure maybe not to this level, but still things have not been truly peaceful there for a long time. The constant negative news coming from these countries lessens the impact over time, and I agree with you the distance hurts too. Also we live in a part of the world that hasn’t witnessed this type of conflict, its hard for us to really get what they are going through, for the most part they are nameless faces that have been lost, while tragically there is nothing to connect us to it like you said.

    Excellent post John, so sorry for the personal pain you have had in your life, your loss.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that desensitization is a big factor. The history is long and complicated and often if the solution is not simple then it is difficult to motivate people to invest time and energy. And thank you for the compliment and kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really appreciate your honesty and introspection.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wholeheartedly agree and rather than waste a lot of words explaining why … I wholeheartedly agree!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gutsy opening, but so eloquently explained. The only other thing I could add is that this one man has obviously influenced millions of minds around the world, and to some extent shaped our thoughts. As for the children (someone will probably shoot me down now), it is a shame and tragedy that their lives have been lost, but what have they contributed to the world. We mourn for the loss of their opportunities and their innocent deaths, but apart from ranting about the injustices of it all, there’s not much more we can say.
    Suicide and depression is also something fairly prevalent in our society and everyone is at risk to some extent. It is a complex entity dependent on stressors, situations, genetics and brain chemistry. Just having one or two of these factors may put you at risk, but working on the others will prevent descent and relapses.
    Great post and love your honesty for putting it out there!!!
    PS are you still sitting in your bathing suit?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that is a gutsy comment and I understand completely what you are saying. And you are right, at a certain point what we can do regarding conflict halfway across the world is really limited.
      Hahaha, once everything was washed I changed out of my bathing suit and put on proper clothes. My wife says I’m the only person she knows that does that.


      • I also wonder if environmental factors have been over emphasized with regards to depression and the physical aspect has been given less study than perhaps is needed.


      • The problems with studies of the so called ‘physiopathology’ of depression often come out of sponsorships by pharmaceutical companies hoping to make big bucks by selling antidepressants which corrects the ‘biochemical imbalance’. Numerous independent studies have shown that medication alone is not adequate treatment for depression, psychotherapy, social supports etc are very important aspect of treatment.


      • Sponsored studies do not sound very ethical. But it seems that even with social supports and adequate environmental factors a segment of people with depression are unable to be helped. I guess my expectation is I don’t want treatment, I want a cure. Which is a bit silly.


      • When we were little, My mum used to wrap all three of us in one big linen sheet when laundry is being done….. Then we all had to bath first before we were allowed to put the clean clothes on. 😀


      • I like you moms style. She knew what was what. Cleanliness was not a priority when we were growing up but it sure is now. I scrub myself shiny!


  6. We all react differently to the tragedy around us. No one should judge any of us for having stronger feelings about one over the other. However, if a person doesn’t care at all about what is going on in Iraq and the Gaza strip, I’d have to question their morality.


    • Obsolutely. That would make them a person lacking empathy which is very scary. My feeling about Robin Williams are not necessarily stronger than my feelings for children in Gaza they more frequent. The intensity of feeling for the children in Gaza is greater but Robin Williams occupies more space just by an accident of geography more than anything else. If that makes any sense.


  7. Gaza isn’t the only place where innocent children are getting killed. It is all heartbreaking. When things like this happen our anger against the abusers is another strong emotion adding to our sorrow for the children, and it is a domineering emotion. When we think about Robin Williams, there is no anger, only sadness and grief. We fully give ourselves to that sadness, and it is why we feel it stronger.


  8. Although there are so many suffering around the world, there is always something else of significance occurring. I was shocked and so sad over his death. He used to be my favorite comedian. His life has meaning, just like everything thats happening around the world. But its okay to stop and reflect on the life of an influential man. Great article!


    • Thank you. And of course I agree. I was getting irritated with people who cast dispersions on someone for even reflecting on the death of Robin Williams while children were suffering. Thanks for stopping by.


      • There will always be suffering. When is there ever a good time to honor someone who has made an impact in someone’s life. Everyone deserves to be honored in some way when they pass on.

        Liked by 1 person

      • And I also think the fact that he comitted suicide really made people start to understand the devestating impact depresion can have. He always had a sadness about him and I think that is what made him such a great dramatic actor but saddly it may have been an indication of the demons he was fighting.

        Liked by 1 person

      • you are so right about that. I always try and find the positive in every situation and we have all learned how serious depression can be. My heart goes out to anyone suffering depression and hope they get the help they need.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I don’t think anyone has any right to tell you who you should or should not mourn. Next time someone asks you why you are mourning the death of just one, if famous, person and not hundreds who die in Gaza, ask them why they are mourning hundreds who died in Gaza and not thousands who died in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, or hundreds who are dying from Ebola, and so on, and so on.


  10. A well-said piece.

    I remember a number of years back (not sure when or all the details) a dog had been stranded on a boat? Barge? and people reacted strongly, wanting to save the dog (ultimately it was). I recall reading a sort of psychological article on it, i.e., why the dog and not all the suffering children (or suffering animals). It somewhat paralleled your ideas; the dog was specific, singular – there was footage of it running around the deck – and people could also donate money toward a rescue. The gist of the piece was that humans are wired up to respond that way, and not so much to broader, vaguer concerns, ones they have no idea how to resolve.


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