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Robin Williams: Oh Captain, My Captain in Life and Death

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No words.

Billy Crystal said it best. Since his passing, I've struggled to find the best words that express the towering influence Robin Williams exerted as an artist, humanitarian and human being.

I didn't get to meet Robin. Yet, like so many of you, I felt like I knew him. I'd had the privilege of peering into those sensitive blue eyes on TV or in the movies, and I believed that I'd plumbed the depths of his soul.

Just like you, it was hard for me to separate Robin the man from Robin the entertainer. For years I'd assumed he was always on, always performing, always light-hearted. It's been a shock to our collective psyche that, like so many of us, Robin had his fair share of personal pain.

There've been a mountain of tributes since Robin's death. One of my favorites was learning that he'd helped to employ the homeless whenever he made a movie. It proved what I'd seen in those blue eyes -- that his portrayal of characters like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society and Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting were not simply feats of directorial magic. They came from a place within Robin that cared, very deeply, about the human condition.

There've also been people eager to ride the wave of his passing. From Internet trolls to fellow celebrities, there's been no shortage of people expressing disdain or disgust over how Robin chose to end his life, how it might encourage other people in a dark emotional place to do the same, and how some publicists have newsjacked his passing to help sell their clients' wares.

These reactions are perfectly natural and utterly human. Tragedy pushes our buttons. It forces us, no matter how fleetingly, to confront the unresolved fears we may have about our safety. A violent quashing of a life makes us fear if some part of us is capable of doing the same. A life of depression despite a cheery public persona makes us fear if we too are neglecting our innermost demons. And in this all-you-can-write Internet buffet, it's deliciously tempting for the materially-minded to want to profit from the suffering of others.

As Maya Angelou put it, "I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me." We're all capable of light or dark behavior. To declare otherwise is to deny our very humanness. And an unexamined life, or a life lived in the illusion that everything's always rainbows and unicorns, is particularly susceptible to shocks and tremors when someone like Robin Williams dies. It reminds us that life isn't black or white, that shadows can lurk in the halls of gray in between.

But, I come today to praise Robin Williams, to express my gratitude for being alive when he was. I wanted to wait until the initial media hoopla had settled, so that I could grieve and pay tribute in my words, in my time.

Thank you, Robin, for being:

My babysitter
I was in elementary school when Mork and Mindy was on TV. I was too young to appreciate his genius, but there was enough physical comedy (and that timeless greeting Na-Nu Na-Nu) to keep me spellbound. Mork was my companion on steamy afternoons alone in my apartment, waiting for my mother to get off work, and he was my first imprint of wanting a man who could make me laugh.

My muse
I fell into drama club at school and played emcee at many school events. I wanted to be as funny and engaging on stage as Robin Williams. Nobody can hold a candle to his spontaneous genius, but it sure was fun to try. He taught me how to be free-spirited, and how to turn unrelated facts or scenarios into a hilarious stream of consciousness.

My improvisation mentor
In 2008, I discovered and fell in love with theatrical improvisation. I guess the seed had been planted all those years ago from watching Mork at his free-styling best, and I was finally ready to harvest the funny fruit in my heart. Robin Williams was never far from my subconscious mind as I learned the art and craft of improv. Immersing myself in decades of his TV appearances gave me a vocabulary of movement to lean into and a library of scenes to borrow from.

My teacher in grief
There's another reason why I love Robin's blue eyes. They remind me of my boyfriend JD's blue eyes, who also passed too soon about a year ago. They have a lot more in common -- both JD & Robin were wickedly funny, hopelessly brilliant and endlessly compassionate. They both endured dark emotional states of being, and Robin's death taught me how far I've come through my own grief. Although I'd struggled to find the words for this post, I'd also felt a curious acceptance and peace.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

JD had lived and, from what we know, Robin had died unable to embrace the truth of this Serenity Prayer. This prayer has since become my daily mantra, to lift me beyond my grief and to believe that there can be joy after losing a soul mate.

My posthumous counselor
Today, I revisited Good Will Hunting after reading this therapist's moving tribute to Robin. I first watched it in my twenties when the movie was released. The themes and plot lines had begun to fade in my memory. This afternoon's re-viewing was revelatory. Again, I saw how Robin's character had planted a seed in my life around emotional healing. I now help leaders find the inner peace that fuels the dreams they have for their lives; or the innovations they produce for their organizations. Just like Will Hunting, there is less room for powerful, game-changing leadership if we carry the wounds of our past into our boardrooms or bedrooms. We don't all need intense therapy, but we could all do with a kind ear that cares, very deeply, about our human condition.

Robin, the glare of your spotlight may already be starting to dim as you pass from this world into the next. Please know that your brilliance continues to sparkle for me and every person that your life, or life's work, has touched.

Maya Mathias helps leaders and innovators change their lives and organizations from a calmer, deeper place. Feel free to contact her at connect@inventivelinks.com. You can also take her free Equanimity Quotient Test at http://leadinpeace.com