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Robin Williams and the Psychological Steam Valve

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Some people are saying "enough already" to the loud and universal grief over Robin Williams. They are tired of the endless streams of remembrances on Huffington Post, social media and elsewhere. Of course, criticism has set in. People want to return to business as usual. "You are wallowing in this," a person close to me noted. "Why are you expending all this time and energy grieving over the death of a comedian, when there are so many more pressing issues to think about?"

(Okay, so I've been wallowing. I wallowed over the murder of John Lennon for a very long time too, while my father pooh-poohed my tears.)

But when beloved celebrities die too soon under awful circumstances, the outpouring of feeling can last a long time. Certainly, the media milks it. (I was working as a contributor to Newsweek magazine when Lady Diana was killed in a car accident in 1997. When I asked an editor there why they were doing yet another cover story on her death, he snarled, "because it sells.")

A cynical media aside, I have a theory that the death of Robin Williams is bringing out something very deep in us, deeper even than the realization that someone so talented and funny was suffering so much that he felt that he had no choice but to escape from life. His death has ironically afforded a kind of relief, in that it gives us an excuse to cry, rather than just shake our heads at the pity of it (which seemed to be the more generalized response over the death by overdose of the great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman), because we simply loved the funnyman so much. The loss of Robin Williams offers us a steam valve, allowing us to express a more generalized grief and anxiety over our current lives and times that we suppress all the time.

Indeed, this week, the steam valve is screaming like a boiling teapot. People who aren't already psychologically numb are alarmed over everything -- whether it's the deplorable state of Congress, downed airliners, Central American children fleeing for their lives and stuck unmercifully at the border, stubborn inequality, the horror in Iraq, climate change, or awful mayhem in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the brutal police shooting unarmed teenager. There is an awful lot to cry about right now. But we don't cry about most of these things. We just stare at it with a feeling of accumulating horror.

Robin Williams' untimely suicide seems to cap it all off, but it also gives us a locus for this pent-up psychological feeling. His death is, in part, a stand-in for our larger anxiety over things falling apart in the world. And this is fitting, because his was an enormously compassionate and emotionally intelligent soul: had he not been as sensitive as he was, he could not have rendered the anguish of the mentally ill (The Fisher King) or their caregivers (Good Will Hunting, Awakenings) as truthfully as he did. And obviously, he had a genius for relieving our anxiety through comedy. He said things that were painfully funny and that no one else dared express (his scathing take-down of George W. Bush during an event attended by the Prince of Wales and Camilla was utterly irreverent, and utterly perfect.)

When I posted these thoughts on my Facebook page, several friends added theirs. My friend Martha, a retired pastor, noted that when the killing of Michael Brown and Williams' suicide collided in the news, she imagined that Williams "had been watching the news and saw what can no longer be denied." A psychologist friend observed that it's hard to imagine someone who brought such joy to so many people as having deep personal difficulties. "Even though his internal state was obvious in retrospect -- there have been many clips showing his open acknowledgement of his struggle with alcoholism -- we glossed over them and focused on the humor he had in his delivery. I think another issue is that a lot of us feel that we were caught unawares."

And a deeply spiritual woman I know, Sherri, said, "We can view this event as a spiritual wake-up call to see the totality of every human being. To do otherwise is dehumanizing, causes suffering and even madness and keeps us in a state of another spiritual stagnation."

Robin Williams is at peace now, after having spent much of his lifetime battling inner demons that too many of us live with but struggle to keep to ourselves. So to people who tell me to get over his death and get back to business as usual, I say this: "I will go on grieving over his loss as long as I damned well please, thank you." That period will be eons shorter than his friends and family will undergo. And in the meantime, we could use more great souls like Robin's to help us all smile through these dark days.