Tuesday, August 12, 2014

But Doctor, I am Pagliacci- A tribute to Robin Williams

A man goes to a doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. The Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." The man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor...I am Pagliacci.”

There’s some sad things known to man, there ain’t too much sadder than, the tears of a clown.
Smokey Robinson

The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long
Lao Tzu

One of the great feel good moments for me as a kid was watching Happy Days.  Although I was never around for the 50’s, the show captured a kind of nostalgia for a time and place that I was always kind of fascinated by. I remember “Mork’s” first appearance quite well. It was the first time I met Robin Williams. I was intrigued.

Later me and my brothers and sister would totally get into ‘Mork and Mindy.’ You knew you were seeing something  unique when you watched Robin Williams. Even as a young kid watching this, I had an intuitive sense that a star was born. He had it. He had that thing.  I loved him as Mork, laughed a lot at his standup over the years, and cried a manly tear at ‘O Captain my Captain’ in Dead Poet’s Society. Later I felt a sense of pride watching him create one of the only great depictions of a psychologist in 'Good Will Hunting.’ Someone finally got it right.

Cut to a LONG time later, and I found my myself with a unique niche in the world. I was someone people wanted to talk to about the intersection of comedy, tragedy, and psychology. How it all happened doesn’t matter. The point is it’s a subject I know something about because I’ve lived it. I know a lot of the reasons people use humor. Most of them are good, some of them are bad, and a lot of them are to push something else way. Humor often pushes something else away. It’s a defense. A very sophisticated one.

In thinking about how Robin Williams lost his hope, it is this thought that lingers in my mind. Where does the comedian go when it’s HIS turn to feel understood? It’s a complicated question. Much of humor, the best kind of humor, taps into a uniquely shared sense of perspective that makes people think about the world in a new way. The best kinds of humor leads us to a deeper understanding about the world, ourselves, and our shared absurdity.. The most enduring comedians tap into this. Robin Williams tapped into this.

And yet there was something more to him as well.  When he chose to do something serious we were completely captivated. Watching ‘Good Will Hunting’ you knew he was the kind of person that knew about the light AND the dark. You don’t turn in that kind of performance without knowing about what it’s like to feel real pain. It’s what made him so interesting. Sure he could be manic and crazy, but he could also be introspective and vulnerable. There were a lot of emotions rattling around inside that man.

And yet in the end, it wasn’t enough. Those who have experienced mania know there is an equal and opposite side of the coin called depression, and there’s not a much lower place a person can go. What goes up must come down. Robin Williams knew this. He was with his old friend John Belushi on his last day on earth. He knew about using drugs and alcohol to try and beat back the emptiness. Knew it was a temporary fix that in the end just made the echo chamber a little more vast and empty. He did it anyway, as many people who struggle with addictions do.

And in the end he lost his way. Does it detract from all the laughter he brought to the world? Somehow subtract from the aggregate boost in human happiness his comedy brought to this mortal coil? No. No it doesn’t.  It just reminds us that all of us are human, and at our most vulnerable moments, we all want a lot of the same things, despite any appearances of money, fame, or whatever. We all want to be understood. Some of us

don’t make it easy for others. A lot of comedians fall in this group. Where does Pagliacci go when HE needs a boost?

Hug a funny person in your life today.

They may be fighting a battle you know nothing about…

1 comment:

Misfit Introvert said...

Dr. Guse, thank you for writing on this. . . as someone who has struggled with depression since high school, I appreciate any move toward more open discussion of the effects of mental illness. Kudos from a fellow '88 RHS grad.