Inside Out, Outside In

What we bring to the world, and what it brings to us

Staying Connected With Robin Williams

How He Awakened The Ties That Bind Us

Gene Beresin, M.D.

Co-author Steve Schlozman, M.D.

 

Robin Williams is gone.

I, like many others, am shocked and sad. I feel like there is some kind of gaping hole, an empty space, maybe even a void. Something very important is missing from my life.

I don’t mean for this to sound selfish. Of course he is missing from other lives in ways that I cannot begin to understand. Nevertheless, I felt a kinship with Robin Williams that transcends my usual fondness for those who make a living by making others laugh. I suspect he would have made a wonderful shrink, though I am so glad he made his way toward the stage instead.

Those who knew him spoke of his kindness, his generosity, his brilliance, his creative genius, his warmth and, perhaps most of all, his sweetness. Many of these comments came from his dear friends, such as Henry Winkler, Jeff Bridges, Sally Field and others (http://deadline.com/2014/08/robin-williams-death-reactions-wife-m...)

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Others have written about the illness of depression—an illness that, despite treatment, may be fatal.

Some have focused on the issue of parity and the need for access to care, particularly for those with mood disorders.

Still, others have simply noted the tragic loss and mourned. We here at The MGH Clay Center believed it necessary to note the stigma of mental illness, and the reluctance of so many to seek help as a result (see Steve’s piece on just that above at: http://www.mghclaycenter.org/parenting-concerns/death-robin-willi...).

But, we have not heard much about the reasons behind such a wide array of powerful reactions to Mr. Williams’ death. Sure, friends and colleagues who were close to Mr. Williams, who worked with and learned from him, have their very personal reasons.

But, how could such a death bring such powerful reactions to those who did not know him personally?

When I heard the news, I was in an Internet café in the Catskills. My daughter-in-law was searching the Web beside me, and suddenly burst into tears. “Robin Williams died. From asphyxiation.”

I was stunned. His image, in so many scenes, flashed hauntingly through my mind. As I said, I felt empty.

I was compelled to see him once again in some of my favorite films—just to be close to him: The Fisher King, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, Good Morning Vietnam, even Mork and Mindy or a random stand-up comedic performance.

We all have lost loved ones. We all have experienced the death of celebrities. But why did this death, obviously by suicide, create such a powerful reaction?

Robin Williams was a humorist, and he was a special kind of humorist. He combined making us laugh with making us feel what others are feeling, even his enemies. In other words, he skillfully enlisted our empathy. But how was it that we could immediately relate to him, and also feel for his opponents?

It seems to me that he had the uncanny ability to arouse laughter, pathos, rage and sympathy all at once. We walked in his shoes and in his opponents’ shoes at the same time. This was his magic, what made him compelling. It is also, by the way, the definition of empathy.

Robin Williams drew us into his world. He compelled us to live within his skin—within his humorous construct—to respond in a special way to and with him. That’s what makes him so special. He enabled us to laugh, to cry and to sometimes feel both simultaneously.

That quality is what made him special. That’s why we’re so sad. This experience of interpersonal communication is essential to being human. Rarely do we make such powerful connections with one another in everyday life, yet, we all need to feel connected—to laugh at ourselves, with and at others, and to even love the ones we hate. That is all part of our humanity. Robin Williams helped us experience those feelings. He enabled our engagement with others.

It is only when we are connected—attached emotionally to others—that we can really feel these things. We know when people are acting and when they are real.

Robin Williams was real to all of us.

And, given our connection with him and the experiences he stirred within us, we really have lost something—an enduring attachment figure—a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend.

Maybe he was trying to tell us in so many ways that we should all be searching for these very connections with each other in real-time.

Maybe he showed us how it could be done. And, sadly in our world, we lack some of this.

Thank you, Robin Williams.

 

Reprinted from the MGH Clay Center

 

http://www.mghclaycenter.org/parenting-concerns/death-robin-willi...

 

Eugene Beresin, M.D., is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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