Robin Williams: Laugh To Keep From Crying

On the one year anniversary of the death of comedian/actor Robin Williams, I wanted to post something that I’d actually written as a private journal entry. I wrote this last year, a few days after his death – and I was impacted by his passing in a surprisingly personal way. Looking back on the time since I wrote that journal entry, I have grown a lot as a person (and continue to do so). My search for personal fulfillment is ongoing, but reflecting on Williams’ death was a powerful catalyst for me to begin my process of changing for the better. The entry is a bit sobering, but I hope that you will read this and enjoy it.

“As I sit at my desk at work with about 3 ½ more weeks to go, my pondering of a certain current event gives me pause. Robin Williams committed suicide this week, and it’s hit me pretty hard for a few reasons.

When I heard the news about Robin Williams, I almost fell into the “This News Has Nothing To Do With My Everyday Life, So Why Should I Care?” trap. It would have been easy to write off his death as something that happened to a Hollywood actor that I wasn’t particularly passionate about. But, then I realized that he was in Bicentennial Man, Dead Poets’ Society, and What Dreams May Come – three movies that I hold pretty close to my heart (though they’re not absolute favorites), and I began to feel a tinge of sadness. As I read more news on Williams’ death, I really began to ponder the significance of this in relation to me. Here was a guy that was rich, successful (by most peoples’ definition), and beloved by all that knew him – but it clearly wasn’t enough. He kept a smile on everyone’s faces by making nonstop jokes – a comedian, if there ever was one. He needed an audience – he craved an audience – because he seemingly didn’t want to be alone in his own company. And he drank, did drugs, and battled depression until finally taking his own life.

I say that this gave me pause because it made me ponder my life up to this point. Before my good friend Katia moved back home to Seattle from Pittsburgh, we had dinner in Station Square before walking across the Smithfield St. Bridge into downtown to our next venue. I was practicing vulnerability by talking about a few of my issues with her (which I never do with anyone); at one point, she asks me “Do you ever laugh to keep from crying?” I was thinking “What an odd question for her to ask!” and I said “No”, & gave an explanation as to why that was/is the case.

Then, Robin Williams commits suicide and I realize that really, he laughed throughout his entire life – and made others laugh continually – so that he could avoid crying. He preferred an audience because if he was alone, then it would force him to face his demons. It would force him to face himself, and that was something that he just could not do. Thus, he became addicted to alcohol & drugs because those substances helped him to live with who he was, both in the present and in the past. And really, it’s quite remarkable that he lasted until age 63. It’s a testament to his perseverance and his willingness to live despite his lack of self-regard. Everyone else liked him, so it didn’t matter to him if he liked himself or not. The danger of this feeling, though, is that once someone makes a decision to live for others without ensuring their own happiness, said person has to constantly be around other people in order to feel fulfilled. Why? Because making others happy is the only thing that makes them happy. It makes them feel whole. It makes them feel complete. But if you cannot complete yourself, then what happens when there is no one around? When you don’t have the shadow of others to hide within? It’s not even hiding behind someone – god knows Robin Williams was no shrinking violet – but hiding within others in order to hide from yourself.  

And when you can no longer hide from yourself, you look for ways to run away from yourself. You search for a means of escape. Since it is apparent that one cannot run away from his/herself (because “Wherever you go, there you are”), one stops to think,” There has to be another way. There has to be another way. So if we can neither run nor hide, then surely we can at least forget, right? Well, not quite. But there are substances that will help us to temporarily do so. That’s where mind-altering substances come in. Here’s the kicker: the effects of these substances are not indefinite. If one wants to forget about oneself for longer periods of time, then you obviously have to consume the substances for longer periods of time – and more often. The relationship between your level of substance consumption becomes directly proportional to your ability to relax in your own presence.

At some point, though, the ability of mind-altering substances to satisfy this need of a person to “forget” becomes its own prison. You realize that you have not truly escaped your demons; they have simply caused you to run from one prison to another. Either one faces his/her own demons, OR one escapes under false pretenses. Avoidance cannot become a permanent state of existence. If you avoid any part of yourself, then you are avoiding all of yourself. If you are avoiding all of yourself….then, I guess someone that wants to forget can claim “Mission Accomplished” for the time being. But then, if one is avoiding something, wouldn’t that imply that the thought of what one is attempting to escape is at the forefront of the mind – even if that thought is framed in terms of getting away from the original issue? So, avoidance DOES NOT WORK. Mission NOT accomplished. But this prison of Avoidance seems preferable to facing one’s original problems, for whatever reason.

Once it becomes obvious that Avoidance is impossible, and that neither running nor hiding is feasible…..there is a choice to be made: either summon the courage to face one’s problems, or rid oneself of the source of one’s issues. If the source of one’s issues is someone else, then steps can be taken to disassociate from that person. If, however, you are the source of the issue, and you still do not wish to face your problems head-on, then suicide becomes the go-to solution. It’s sad, but it is all too often the option that people take when they deem their problems ‘unsolvable’ (to use that term in the broadest sense possible).

All of this is to say that living for others (rather, through others) without ensuring that you are happy is an extremely slippery slope to embark upon. To answer Katia’s question (even though she’s about a few thousand miles away now…..yes, I do laugh to keep from crying. I do tell nonstop jokes because I feel that it is an easy way to relate to people. I grew up being beloved by my parents and siblings, but rejected by much of the rest of my family (not all of them). I was beloved by my community due to my high level of academic achievement and my ambition to move forward in life, but rejected by many members of my high school graduating class because (insert reason). So it stands to reason that I did not grow up having an intuitive knowledge of how to relate to my age group. They either really admired my achievements or envied both my achievements & my ability to make my community proud of my accomplishments.

Enter college. I used my musical taste, my expansive sports knowledge, and my intuitive ability to be hilarious to be liked. And I pretty much do the same thing now (six years after the start of my freshman year @ Pitt), though I’m learning to relate to my friends now on a more authentic level. Feelings have never been easy for me to share with others, but I’m (very) slowly learning the ins and outs of authentic vulnerability. Instead of laughing to keep from crying, I need to learn to drop the mask of humor. I need to simply cry sometimes instead of glossing over my feelings and pretending that all is well, which is my typical style of being. Robin Williams’ life and death both have nothing to do with irrelevance, and everything to do with my life as it stands.

There was a senior citizen that saw me at the bus stop this morning in my neighborhood with Leana as I waited to go to work. Every time I see her, she makes a point to tell me that I need to make it a priority to take care of myself in addition to caring for everyone else. She then goes on to tell me that women often put everyone ahead of themselves to the detriment of their own health and happiness. Her cautionary tale that she told me involved her daughter who, after spending her whole life caring for her family & children, realizes that she has cancer and only lives five months after the diagnosis. Her daughter died at the young age of 45 because she ignored all signs that her health was failing until it was too late; she was too busy tending to others to care for herself. And how timely it was for me to see that woman this morning. After that conversation, and after speaking to my site director at work about needing to tend more to getting my own life in order, and after viewing Robin Williams’ life/death through the lens of my own life’s current trajectory……I believe wholeheartedly that it is time for me to begin concentrating on facing my demons – after I nail down exactly what those are. I cannot continue wanting to run away, because it is impossible to run away from oneself. I cannot hide within others anymore because my support network is rapidly changing (and continues to). And I cannot practice Avoidance any longer because it has caused me to feel numb to the point of not even feeling alive – and that is certainly no way to live.

I refuse to choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem, because what would be the point of that? That is one “solution” that has not even crossed my mind as being viable during this turbulent time for me because there is an answer. There is always an answer, and it is unfortunate that a great man like Robin Williams could not see that. That answer might hurt, it might be gut-wrenching…it might even cause you to feel at times that your life isn’t worth it. That your life isn’t worth all the trouble…but that DOESN’T MEAN that your life isn’t actually worth it. Because it is. And if you can reach just one person with your story, if you can impact just one person’s life in a positive way, then your life is/was worth it. Robin Williams’ life was worth it. He touched millions with his laughter, his humor, and his genuineness as a person. But it can’t just be about touching others and neglecting yourself in the process. You cannot make others happy as a means of avoiding your own issues. And that is where Mr. Williams went wrong. And that is where I have unknowingly gone wrong for so many years. I have continually given to others until there was no more left to give to myself. But I have not given others the gift of knowing who I really am. I have felt neglected, ignored, and insignificant, but blamed everyone except for myself. I am only now realizing that I was neglecting & ignoring myself while expecting others to not do the same to me. I have been holding others to a different standard than I have held myself, and that just isn’t fair. I laughed to keep from crying, and then blamed others from not knowing about my desire to cry. But if those of us that subscribe to the “humor to relate” school of thought can learn to drop the mask – to let go of the fear of doing so – and to simply be authentic & real, we’ll be a lot better off for it.

To be or not to be? I’ll choose “being” every time.”

Talk Soon,
Liberty ❤