In the sixth grade, I was fascinated most with cryogenics, space travel, meiosis, Sherlock Holmes—and television. There was no Daddy around, so television was a substitute parent. While everyone seemed to be talking about the downfall of America through four or more hours of TV a day, I got advised to watch more. My mom’s colleague at the local hospital approved my request to perform cryogenics experiments (on mealworms) in his 70-below freezer, but then told me that I “should watch more Mork and Mindy instead.” He was right, but now I wish that I could have mastered cryogenics too and by now have learned how to freeze time itself before last Monday.
Ah, Robin Williams. How many of us walked around saying “Nanu nanu,” “This is Mork calling Orson, come in Orson,” and found license for our inner zany. Later, I reminisced about my own high school English teachers with Dead Poets Society. As a doctor, I thrilled in his portrayals of real-life inspirations Patch Adams and Oliver Sacks (Awakenings) and the fictional Sean Maguire (Good Will Hunting). All good men, with personality, intelligence, and heart—just like Robin himself.
But it is a struggle to be human. Writer Anne Lamott reflected on that in an eloquent Facebook post that remembered the insecure Robin of shared teen years in Marin, California. Robin reminded us in his life of the power of the mind—his neurons didn’t just fire, they were the biggest Fourth of July fireworks show that most of us had ever experienced.
The mind was so powerful, and yet also so fragile and alone. Our thoughts can go any which way on their own, to the deepest lows and the highest highs. The only cure, really, for our human neuroses is to “add people and stir.” We have to ground ourselves in relationship with each other. Otherwise, our mind thinks it knows what reality is—and it doesn't. It can't. None of us can contain reality on our own, only our perspectives and perceptions. We can lose our connection to others when we fall prey to our own thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness can help us observe these “secretions of our brains" and keep us from identifying with them (the brain makes thoughts, not reality, after all), but perhaps the most important part of being human is being related to other humans. Add people, and stir.
The other cure for neurosis involves compassion. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, expert in suicide and mood disorders, wrote an excellent Op-Ed in the New York Times a few days ago, “To Know Suicide.” I highly recommend her book Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. “Depression can be treated, but it takes competence,” she wrote. “Empathy is important, but competence is essential.” I agree, but would say you can’t have one without the other. There is no competence without compassion, and compassion is incomplete without competence. Luckily, both can be trained and cultivated and should be in our health care system and in society-at-large. The emotions and thoughts that take lives in suicide—worthlessness, hopelessness, a wish to end one’s suffering through death, among others—need connection, not isolation or a sterile form of competence. Competence includes giving another human being the experience of being cared for, understood, valued, and even loved, all markers of compassion. No one person has all the answers for another person’s predicament. We have to create a way out of no way, together, and compassion makes that possible.
We are all so fortunate to have witnessed Robin Williams’ brilliance, and we are all touched by his loss. Our hearts are with his family and loved ones. Many of us are even more motivated to seek help and to be helpful to those in need. We are all in need.
We are left with an imprint on our souls of a man whom some might say was larger-than-life, but I resist this. Because, in the end, he struggled inside his own mind with life, as we all do. Robin enlarged all our lives, though, as we all do for each other with our presence. But now, his absence leaves a space, perhaps even a holy space, just as all untimely losses do.
“Snow angels, being beautiful because of the power of an outline to name an absence holy…Dove collides into window, leaving a white imprint of its body. A crime scene outline saying Take this, the dust of me. Remember the way my body was round and would not move through glass.”
Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, civilians in Gaza, all victims of violence, internally and outwardly directed aggression, bring us to this holy absence. Through them, we are reminded that this mind must be mastered, learned, and brought to peace. Lives are in the balance of the choices we make and resentments, hostilities, prejudices and grudges we bear. Our minds can be both a barrier and, with each other's help, a window, opening.
© 2014 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.
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