The World According to Robin Williams

robin williams

Yes, this is another Internet post on Robin Williams’ suicide. But hear me out.

Like most people my age, I grew up watching Robin Williams do what only he could do. “Mork and Mindy” is one of the earliest sitcoms I remember watching, only this one I watched with bated breath. There was simply no one cooler than that silly, adorable alien. What would he do next? Everyone was asking that same question because, no one ever knew.

My dad had a video recording of Robin Williams’ live performance at the Met and my siblings and I would watch it sometimes daily, even though most of the jokes were over our heads and significantly inappropriate for children our age. Still, we loved watching him morph into other people, shapeshifting right before our eyes like some supernatural creature. There was always something inoffensive about Robin Williams’ way of handling offensive topics, something genuinely kind and childlike. Perhaps that’s why my dad let us watch that performance repeatedly. Perhaps that’s why America grieves so heavily over this loss.

My family and I also fell in love with Robin Williams as T.S. Garp in the 1982 movie “The World According to Garp,” a film we watched more times than I can count. He personified what it meant to grow up in a world as the terribly shy, sexy and then sad John Irving character that Garp was; the way Robin Williams played him made it so perfectly humbling and beautiful, especially in the final moments of the film. I’m 100 percent certain that Robin Williams as the writer Garp influenced me to become a writer. To a ten-year-old, he made writing seem like both a responsibility and catharsis. He justified journeying into my own imagination and gave me permission to explore my own well of creativity as well, even if it would never compare to the abundant warehouse of inventiveness that was Robin Williams.

Along with the millions of other adoring fans, the news of Robin Williams’ death hit me in the gut, hard. Much harder than I would have ever imagined. I have cried three times in the last several days imagining his last lonely moments alive—what those once hilarious voices in his head must have been saying, and the tremendous, unbelievable grief that was no doubt hovering like an unmovable boulder. An Orkian space egg that would never make it back home. The heartbreaking fact that it came down to that unbearable moment for him—that friend to all of us, diffusing the absurdity and rigidity of our culture for decades—punctuates the profundity of his career. It illuminates the raw and sheer absurdity of being human–the pain and beauty and the line that so often blurs between the two.

One of the biggest tragedies in the wake of Robin Williams’ death is the repeated mentions of him as being a “coward” or taking the easy way out in committing suicide and abandoning his family. It has sparked controversy and newscaster name-calling, but it also has brought attention to the severity of depression and the brute finality that suicide is. A commitment indeed.

When I heard Robin Williams being called a coward, my immediate reaction was the opposite; that he was so very brave. Not that suicide is a brave or heroic decision or ever even the right one, but coming to terms with our darkest feelings is brave. It’s the hardest of the human endeavors that even our most beloved stars struggle with deeply, often times more than we can imagine. A line of friends and strangers miles long would certainly have met Robin Williams to support and console him if he had let the world know he was moving towards his ultimate decision. He knew this without question. He chose what he chose anyway. Who are we to say he made a wrong decision, let alone one of cowardice?

Euthanasia for the terminally ill is legal in some countries, and it hopefully will become as widely accepted and appreciated as receiving any type of medical treatment for terminal illnesses. Robin Williams’ disease wasn’t physical—there was no tumor eating away at his lungs or brain (although news has surfaced that he was suffering from early onset of Parkinson’s disease). But he was suffering from a debilitating, painful illness that he couldn’t stand for one more moment. If that’s not terminal, I don’t know what is. Perhaps if he could have just held on another day, things might have changed. The darkest hour is always just before the dawn, after all. But instead, he decided he’d had enough. He took inventory, hopefully made one last joke to himself, and then bravely left us all with the most candid glimpse of what it really meant to be Robin Williams.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.