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.
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.
Categories: Pop Culture