Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Robin Williams

How very sad to learn of the passing of Mr. Williams who apparently has committed suicide at the age of 63. Since news of his death broke, Twitter has posted thousands and thousands of messages from his many fans expressing their sadness. Mr. Williams possessed a seemingly gregarious personality and delighted in playing the clown. The person laughing is usually crying on the inside. Laughter is a type of medicine to suture a bleeding spirit. The human condition is one of incredible highs and lows. No one is born so even keeled in their mentality that they never suffer from the business of living. Religion was invented as a means of seeking higher guidance because some craved solace plus it added meaning to already complicated lives. For others there is alcohol or drugs or abuse though addiction of anything from eating disorders to sex addiction. Much has been written on depression as a disease. I still disagree with the moniker - disease is something physical as in a dying body through chronic illness. Mental illness appears to be prevalent amongst middle-aged white males and is one of the biggest causes of suicide in the US.

Our society expects us to behave a certain way and think in a manner that conforms. Just today I was trembling in my boots as I spoke to the Inland Revenue about filing my company return.  Put one foot wrong there and I could spend the rest of my life regretting it. I should add that HMRC are always very amenable to deal with and my trepidation is usually ill-placed. The point I am making though is that human beings live in an almost perpetual state of stress. Money worries, love worries, job worries, the list goes on.

A few weeks ago I interviewed an artist on my radio show and she made the following remark: the only way she can be free is to paint. Nobody can tell her what to do when she is holding that brush to canvas. In a sense she is right but almost certainly wrong too. All thought is based on experience or idea that has gone before. Put it this way- in screenwriting there are seven distinct stories to tell.
(If you didn't know what they are, here are all seven:  
Overcoming the Monster
Rags to Riches 
The Quest
Voyage and Return

It is impossible to veer away from these definitive paradigms because they reflect the spectrum of human experience. The only difference in these types of stories is the way the screenwriter will interpret the rules by adding his unique take on them through his writing skill. The same applies to the artist I mentioned above. She may think she is free when she paints but she is actually following a set of rules which constitute painting in oils and which she can't ignore. Her 'language' i.e. her interpretation, may differ but that is all.

How does this lead to the issue of suicide? And why are middle-aged men in particular succumbing to the last resort? If we accept the argument that we're not really free and that we are forced to pursue materialistic happiness because that's what modern day living is all about, the argument could end right there. However let's look at it from another perspective. If I put the question to you to tell me which public figure would you say is a role model, you would probably struggle like all hell to answer. What is a role model anyway? Is it a good, virtuous person? Is it a politician who doesn't tell fibs? Is it an individual who has sacrificed their lives for the greater good? The truth is most of us would be hard pressed to name a role model apart from the obvious ones like Gandhi or Mandela-  the likes of whom would probably never appear again. In other words, our perception is skewed towards what we want to believe not what is.

Mr. Williams entertained us all for decades and fans made the mistake of thinking he was the characters he was portraying. Anything but. Mr. Williams was just as tortured as the average Joe Bloggs who struggles to pay the bills every month. Like death, sadness is a great leveller. We are all prone to feeling burdened by the business of living. Middle-aged men can feel like complete failures when they look at their lives and feel emasculated rather than the capable, strong providers they are meant to be.  The mid-age crisis is more about confronting death and lost dreams than wanting to be young again. Women have feminism as their pet cause, men have a stereotype to live up to. 

A friend of mine recently confessed that he considers himself a failure. I reminded him that I have failed more times than I have succeeded in my life. The demands we make on ourselves are out of proportion to the lives we should be living: quieter, calmer, and less frenetic. But I'm not exactly practising what I preach with fervent zeal: I beat myself up when I haven't worked hard enough every day and when I haven't ticked off the long list of things that needed doing. Perhaps it's the feeling that I'm running out of time and I need to get it all done NOW.

We are all familiar with that expression of  'prioritising' what needs our attention. Like my lists and my hankering for order. Confusion and disorder cause imbalance and disharmony- people like me cannot think straight in a messy house. But searching for order to construct our lives is, in a sense, a great insecurity. One friend complains about my brightly coloured dinner plates when he comes over- to him food can only be consumed on plain white porcelain. His desire to be surrounded by only black and white (even his clothes) actually masks a deep-rooted fear of being forced to prise apart his rigid thinking: by everything being uniform there are no surprises.

Taking risks in life requires a great deal of bravery and courage. When we limit our thinking out of fear we are preventing all the good things from finding us too. In my opinion, one of the greatest disservices ever done to mankind is to suppress the black dog by a dependency on anti-depressants, foisting addiction for wont of a better word, onto the vulnerable. Another acquaintance who suffered a nervous breakdown considers herself 85% cured of her depression but still not sure of ever being her 'old self' (that's the remaining 15% speaking). She has been taking anti-depressants for 30 years and in stronger and stronger dosages. More than half of her life out of her head. And although she's not supposed to drink alcohol, she finds that she can't stop drinking when she does. She's stuck with a two headed monster for the rest of her life.

The solutions to our problems have habitually come as pills, hard liquor or something else that we can usually purchase with cold, hard cash. The answer remains abstract and external to ourselves. Convincing ourselves that we are responsible for our own happiness can sound too far fetched when we've already handed that task to something and someone else. Life isn't that thing going on around us. It's happening in our heads.

RIP Mr. Williams.

Photo copyright SvD.

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