Kindness can make difference between ‘waving’ and ‘drowning’
The reason that the death of Robin Williams seemed so particularly shocking, so cruel, even so personal, very nearly like a betrayal, is that when we think of him — his body of work, his persona, everything we know about him — our very first thought is of an irrepressible life force the likes of which we have never seen on the stage or screen. It was obvious from the very first minute that he captured America’s imagination as Mork from Ork on the 1970s television sitcom “Happy Days” that Williams was that rarest of birds — a complete original. He would remain so for nearly 40 years, not only continuing to find new ways to make us laugh, but by taking unexpected turns into drama, revealing depths that we hadn’t been able to imagine, perhaps giving us a glimpse of the darkness deep inside that eventually pulled him under.
Of course, we know that it is foolish to think that we can really know what is going on in the lives of other people, especially celebrities. All we know of Williams is what we’ve seen through the camera lens, but it was easy to believe that this particular man couldn’t be that much different when the cameras weren’t rolling and the audience wasn’t watching. His performances were almost always the ultimate high wire act — it seemed that even he didn’t know where he was going sometimes, as his mind ricocheted from one thought to the next, free associating at 180 miles per hour, veering out of control and then back in again while we tried our best to keep up as we thanked God for our VCRs because we knew we’d need them to go back and catch half the jokes we had missed.
His appearances on talk shows were thrilling for this very reason — there was no way to predict what he might say or do, but there was no doubt that it would be hilarious. So much of good comedy seems improvised but is actually painstakingly constructed. Williams’ genius was that so much of his comedy really WAS improvised. For example, in one of his finest roles as a disc jockey in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” there were places in the script that read, simply, “Robin does his thing.”
Even in his most popular dramatic role as Professor John Keating in “Dead Poets Society,” Williams rescued an otherwise dull and overwrought film with the scenes of him teaching poetry to a group of prep school boys, where he could put his comedic gifts to good use. Williams was a force of nature, and it was easy enough to believe that his zest for life could spark an interest in poetry … or in anything, really — among a group of young men looking for something to believe in.
As a teacher of literature myself, my main complaint with the movie was what the boys really ended up loving was the professor more than the poetry, but that did not diminish my enjoyment of the scenes that included Williams. I mean, impersonating John Wayne and Marlon Brando doing Shakespeare may be shtick, but it’s really good shtick, and any honest teacher will tell you that there is an aspect of performance, even theater, in the art of teaching.
Ironically, when I heard the news that Williams had taken his own life, after absorbing the initial shock, the first thing I thought of was poetry, in particular a poem by Stevie Smith called, “Not Waving but Drowning” that I’ve been teaching for years in my college literature courses.
“Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought,
And not waving but drowning.”
The poem continues changing point of view from third to first person, from the watchers to the victim, as it pursues its drowning metaphor to its sad conclusion. We thought you were waving. No, I was drowning. We thought you were happy (“poor chap, he always loved larking”). No, I was miserable (“I was out much too far all of my life”).
Was there anything that anyone could have done to save Robin Williams from “drowning”? I don’t know, but maybe one thing we can do is to try harder to understand the signals we get from other people who suffer from depression, those who try to “put on a happy face” because that is what everyone expects and what society demands. As a culture, we are impatient of depression, even contemptuous of it. What do YOU have to be sad about, in the greatest country in the world, with everything you have, with all there is to live for? We tend to see the depressed as lacking focus, drive, ambition, and initiative. They are not waving but drowning. If only we could learn to read the signals and dare to reach out.
You never know when one small act of empathy and genuine understanding might be just the lifeline that saves someone from slipping under for good.