The death of Robin Williams this past week caused much commentary in the news and a flurry of responses in the social-media. But the commentary was not just about the death of an iconic actor and comedian. It appears that the actor, who was just 63, took his own life – apparently as the culmination of a long struggle with depression. That has led to much soul-searching and (understandably) an increase in calls to charity help-lines. As someone commented on Facebook, “If a man with such a good sense of humour can do himself in because of depression, where does that leave the rest of us?”
It’s not my purpose here to discuss either depression or suicide. Both are huge problems in our western society. Over the years I’ve sat with too many people who were desperately unhappy and some who were clinically depressed – the “light at the end of the tunnel” was a train that hit them for six. I also know the particular anguish that suicide creates for family and friends – the funeral of a suicide victim is arguably the most difficult funeral for a pastor to take. The tragedy is not just Robin Williams’ death (we all die) but that he was so desperately unhappy that he saw no other solution than to take his own life.
For me there were two other things particularly that came to mind.
The first is that fame and fortune do not necessarily make people happy and if there is any moral lesson in the story of Robin Williams’ death it is that fun and laughter can be very superficial things.
I confess that I enjoyed the movie, Mrs Doubtfire and I watched it with the family on more than one occasion. I appreciated the way in which the hero of the story fought for his marriage and his family – despite his rather dysfunctional persona. But it was above all a fun comedy that was good for a laugh. The trouble is that Mrs Doubtfire is a split personality. There’s the zany home-help and nanny who provides us with a couple of fun-filled hours of escapism. But there’s also “her” alter-ego – the man who was not really such very good husband or father despite his commitment to the family.
In some ways, that seems to me like a good picture of Robin Williams. On the one hand we have the very public person of an actor and comedian. He was renowned not only for his role as Mrs Doubtfire – there were a number of other memorable movies such as Dead Poets Society. But that was the Robin Williams that was the public persona – the movie star. There was another person that we didn’t see so well. There was the Robin Williams who struggled with addictions to drugs and alcohol and who spent time in rehab for substance abuse. There was the Robin Williams who was the philanderer and womaniser whose extra-marital affairs ended at least one of his three marriages. Some have even spoken of the Robin Williams who dabbled in the occult. Was this other (non-public) “Mrs Doubtfire” all bad? Not at all! There was also the Robin Williams who founded a philanthropic organisation and who gave the proceeds of a concert to help rebuild Christchurch after the earthquake there.
The point is that so much of social media commentary this past week has focused only on the public persona… the movie star and comedian. As one Facebook person lamented, “The world just got less funny”. Sadly, Robin Williams is just one of a long list of famous movie stars whose private life was rather a mess and who saw no way out but to end it all. From Marilyn Monroe to Heath Ledger there have been many sad situations where fame and fortune just did not translate into personal happiness. Jesus warned us that we can gain the world but lose our soul.
The other matter that troubled me this past week was that I saw so many Christians on Facebook who lamented this death of an iconic actor and comedian as a great loss. I want to say to them, “Hey folks, while we don’t like to see anyone die in such circumstances, he was only a movie star.” To the world around us they become “idols” who accept the worship of their adoring fans. Christians ought to have a more sober outlook. The reality is that Robin Williams is just another person who needed Jesus in his life – but that’s not the kind of message that you will hear from Mrs Doubtfire.