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Through a Screen: How We Knew Robin Williams

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In the hours after the news broke about Robin Williams' death, there were hundreds of articles, videos, posts, tweets, pictures, lists, etc. paying homage to actor and comic. There have been hundreds of memorials created, tears shed, laughs shared, thoughts expressed, movies and stand-up specials watched and re-watched. Overwhelmingly, in the short time since the news broke, much of the energy put into the world regarding Robin Williams has been full of compassion, empathy, gratitude, and love. But not all of it.

In my small pocket of the world, amongst the myriad articles, videos, thoughts, and comments posted by my friends and family, two stood out to me. Not for their beauty, kindness, or poignancy, but for their questioning, resistance, and refusal. These two posts have continued to occupy my mind because in their defiance of the outpouring of tributes, they are both, while truthful to some degree, harsh, judgmental, and painful.

Both posts were from people whom I respect, whom I believe to be intelligent and caring individuals, and because of this, both took me by surprise. We forget, or at least I do, even as we grow to surround ourselves with like-minded, "like-attituded" people, that within those similarities lies variance. These remarks are a reminder to me that even these similar, like-minded people can have wildly different perspectives. While I welcome that reminder, as I try to seek and absorb different perspectives ("I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way."), in the end, I am compelled to push back.

The first post was likely not dissimilar to some others have come across, regarding the selfishness of suicide. Expressing the anger this person feels that someone so talented, with so much influence on so many people, would dare take his own life. On one hand, I do, to a degree, understand this. People get angry at loss; that's not unusual. People see the loss of talent, in particular, as a senseless waste. What struck me about this post, and particularly a subsequent comment, was the fact that this person appeared to only be angry. This sentiment was expressed and defended while the commenter acknowledged that they themselves have never dealt with depression. Based on a complete lack of familiarity with this illness, they took the stance that any place the brain can take you to, the brain can take you away from. The second post, which I have found to be a common response after any celebrity death, referred to an annoyance at (or at least a challenge to) the outpouring of grief for a celebrity none of us knew personally while we pass by neighborly tragedies, like the violence on Chicago streets, without a second thought every day.

I see the validity of both of these points, and I don't mean to shame or dismiss these individuals or those that agreed with them (as many did). As I think they were meant to, both statements got me thinking in a different way. And, because of that, I realized how connected the two seemingly disparate thoughts are. That is what compels me to throw my admittedly non-requested two cents in.

The connection that struck me was a lack of empathy. Not on the part of the individuals, but on a societal level. The point of questioning a society's tendency to mourn celebrities more than neighbors was likely to draw attention to a lack of compassion for those neighbors. To highlight a perceived disconnect between our inability or an unwillingness to empathize with a stranger next door while at the same time shedding real tears and empathizing with a person we only ever knew through a screen. To experience anger, to seek others also experiencing anger, is valid. It makes sense. An inability or an unwillingness to step outside your experience and try to imagine suffering from a horrible, consuming, lying illness, demonstrates a lack of empathy.

I question an inability to even imagine what depression feels like, or how it may cause someone take their own life. Not to say that usual sadness is the same as depression, because it absolutely is not. Depression is an illness -- an illness that lies to you, that makes you unable to trust your own mind. It is an illness striking millions around the world every year. I have not battled this illness, but I have experienced torturous grief. Grief that propelled me into a cavity of sadness, that made me question my sanity, that made me question the validity of my experience and existence, and took me months to emerge from. It is nothing compared to what many people suffering from clinical depression experience, but because of it I know that while I cannot fathom the extent of their pain, I can in some small way empathize with them. I can understand why people suffering to such an extent would see only one way out. I question whether this friend -- or anyone -- really lacks that empathetic capacity. I suspect perhaps they simply "must look at things in a different way."

I question whether people sharing their tributes to Williams really do ignore the nearby tragedies. Do we? Does not sharing the number of victims of Chicago's latest overnight or weekend shooting mean we do not see or react to that particular tragedy? Maybe. Maybe some of us overlook it, or look away. Maybe not personally knowing Robin Williams or any of the other celebrities we lose diminishes the impact or validity of our loss. But maybe it is this very loss that will lead some of us toward greater empathy for the people we see, meet, and get to know personally. Maybe the loss of someone whom we only know because he made us laugh; granted our wishes; reminded us to believe; made us look at things in a different way will help us to do just that.

Perhaps this is just my way of adding to the outpouring of tributes. I was surprised at the magnitude of my sadness about the loss of Williams; plenty of others have already eloquently expressed why he touched so many of us in such a profound way, and I suppose I am no different. So maybe I just want to add to the love everyone has sent him, and I am doing that by pushing back at these small pieces of vaguely negative energy. I'm not sure. But I know I am looking at things from a different way. I know that the beauty Robin Williams brought to the world through his humor, kindness, and generosity inspires many of us to do the same. I am grateful we had him in our lives, even if it was only through a screen.