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Robin Williams and the Way of Things

You might be wondering why a post about Robin Williams is appearing here on a chess blog. There are several reasons, the least of which being that my main theology and personal blog will not debut until later this year. Additionally, OMC is not just a chess blog. As the subtitle indicates, this is a place for science, art, and the philosophy of the game. While there is no evidence that Robin Williams was a prolific chess player, his art did have a profound effect on millions of people around the world. If anyone doubts that, the prevalence of tributes in the mainstream media and across the various social networks should be enough to make you a believer. The volume of material being created and distributed in Robin’s honor made me somewhat hesitant to even mention it on my Facebook or Twitter feeds, but an unfortunate pattern of information flow and public reaction to the news of his suicide makes me believe that now is the right time to say this…

For anyone that has ever followed the public reaction to the death of a popular figure will note that reactions typically come in stages, which I have divided into a wholly unscientific and opinionated table of facts:

# Stage Details Length
1 Devastation Feelings of complete loss and hopelessness. Lack of understanding with very few answers. Much outpouring of sympathy and compassion. 1-3 Days
2 Confusion Loss and hopelessness turn into a search for answers. Public interest begins to shift toward finding a solution to problems. 3-5 Days
3 Absolution Social media begins relentless campaign to encourage others to seek help for related problems. Vigilante mental health referrals abound. 5-7 Days
4 Accusation This stage can appear at any point, but it typically appears after people have had time to digest news of the cause, method, and reasoning for the person’s death. 7+ Days
5 Continuation Most people forget and move on to the next tragedy in their lives. 7+ Days

As of this writing, most people have moved into the Absolution stage of development where images of Robin Williams tattooed with the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are beginning to permeate throughout social media. The postings were harmless enough at first and I do not doubt the sincere desire to help others on behalf of the people who post photos and messages. However, the growing disillusionment with tributes and encouragement for other people battling depression and contemplating suicide underlines a deeper problem in the social fabric of our time. Namely, the ubiquitous insinuations that it is inappropriate to show grief or overwhelming compassion for one person without creating a deficiency in the life of another.

Robin Williams vs. Christopher Walken – Any argument you have about anything is invalid.

Unfortunately, I have watched as retorts to Robin Williams’ tributes have turned from compassion and support to questions and comments such as, Why is HE getting so much attention? and What about all of the other people out there battling with depression? In today’s world, we are obsessed with equality and fairness to an extent that borders on madness. We are discouraged from eating meat because animals deserve equal treatment afforded to humans. We are discouraged from saying or doing things that offend others because all people deserve the right to experience life in the most comfortable and unchallenging way possible. Some people would argue that Judit Polgar or Gary Kasparov do not have the right to carry thte title of Grandmaster because there are people out there that could never be as good at chess as they are. Or, perhaps worse, that I should be given the rank of Grandmaster as a way of being fair and not ostracizing anyone from the chess community. The reality is that I will never be as good as Judit or Gary and I live my life with that knowledge without any problems because their accomplishments give me reasons to hope and dream. However, we are discouraged from showing fear, grief, or devastation over the loss of someone whose art caused us so much joy simply because he is the victim of the same illness that affects countless millions of people around the world. The absurdity of it all is mind boggling.

I think it is very important for us to consider the man across the street or the co-worker battling with depression and suicidal ideations when we discuss actors like Robin Williams. Does Robin deserve more attention and grieving than the man across the street or our co-workers? I would say without a doubt: yes, because he has had much more of an impact on my own life than the guy across the street. I grew up watching and enjoying the art that Robin Williams contributed to the world. He was a fortunate man whose ability to assume the identities of so many fascinating people and bring them into the comfort of our living rooms earns him a special place in our hearts. I think that dismissing his death is a disservice to him and others like him whose existence has such a positive influence on the lives of so many others.

Sometimes it is necessary to call a spade a spade. Fear is the dominant force in our society and that is through no one’s fault but our own. We wallow in the fear that somebody, somewhere is lonely, sad, or underrepresented by those in power. In our backwards, polarized society we have come to see the only people that need love and support are the sick, poor, and marginalized. If love and compassion come with prerequisites, then how can we ever know if we are truly loving the right people the right way? I think that the fear of showing grief over the death of a man like Robin Williams is rooted in the fact that we really do not care about anyone. I think that our society has forgotten how to love unless it has an attached agenda or individual benefit. Even social causes and the Church itself are guilty of placing love only where it benefits them, and this is nothing short of the heart of evil. If we truly loved the man across the street or the co-worker struggling with depression the same way that we loved our idols on television, radio, and the internet, then it would rid society of its ability to soak us in anxiety, fear, and guilt.

Robin Williams taught many of us how to laugh, cry, and how to truly be scared. In passing, he has also taught us to sit back and not only analyze the value that we place on our own lives but also the lives of those around us. Only when we learn that love, in the truest sense that God has placed in the capacity of our hearts, is not tied to a social agenda, job, or societal status. Love is for all, and when we love all in the way God has taught us, then there is freedom from fear and guilt forever.