Robin Williams and the Tragedy of the Comedian

The recent death of  iconic actor and comedian Robin Williams has understandably lead to much shock and sadness, especially in light of the fact that he had committed suicide. Needless to say, there are no shortage of eulogies and reflections related to his legacy, accomplishments, and characters — what one would expect when such a titanic and beloved personality departs so suddenly — as well as discussions centered on his lifetime struggle with addiction and depression (which was nonetheless masked or mitigated in the public eye by his consistent lightheartedness and energy).

While I can go at length about this matter myself, or share a trove of excellent pieces covering everything there is to know and appreciate about Williams, I will stick to one that I found especially informative and relevant.

Over at Cracked, David Wong wrote an engaging piece that explored why it is that so many energetic, humorous, and seemingly well-adjusted people — celebrity or otherwise — end up as unlikely victims of suicide. I recommend you read the whole article, as it does a good job of mixing in thoughtful musings with the magazine’s characteristic wit and humor (which in this instance I found appropriately more tactful than usual). The crux of it is this:

Every time [a funny person makes] a joke around you, they’re doing it because they instinctively and reflexively think that’s what they need to do to make you like them. They’re afraid that the moment the laughter stops, all that’s left is that gross, awkward kid everyone hated on the playground.

I can attest to these both by observation and experience. I am very insecure about my personality and personal merits, which is one reason I indulge in sharing knowledge or being a clown, both online and off — it makes me feel valuable and desired, even though I also subsequently feel terrified of the “real” me being discovered and subsequently disliked.

Thankfully, my own struggles with self-loathing and the subsequent depression have never been bad enough to lead to addiction or self-destructive behavior. In fact, as I have gotten older, I have graciously been made to feel very accepted by many people despite my flaws, which has helped me passed my personal hangups, slowly but surely.

Speaking more broadly, one big point to glean from the article — and from the many similar observations of suicide victims appearing well on the surface — is that most people suffer in silence. Even those of us without depression or a serious mental illness feel the need to mask our hardships, internalize our negative feelings, and opt not to be a “burden” to those around us.

For many people, the alternative coping mechanism is to act out, to find worth and validation as someone entertaining and fun. One finds a purpose in brightening others’ days so that they do not suffer the same way you do. Imparting laughter and happiness is a way to gain social acceptance while also feeling like you’re doing some good in the world, which is always a nice feeling no matter what your mental state.

It is thus little wonder that so many troubled people gravitate to behaving or embracing seemingly contradictory behavior. It gives meaning and uplights their moods and others’. It is also a way to lighten the pain and burden of depression by making it more bearable, or even funny. What else is there to do with so much intractable sadness and hopelessness — aside from escaping into mind-altering substances, or ending your mind altogether.

Obviously, not all happy and humorous people harbor deep-seated and often fatal pain. Rather, it is that not all sad and pained people seem to clearly be that way. Symptoms of depression manifest in many different ways, as do the ways that people deal with them, so generalizations should be made with caution. But clearly, there is a pattern of suicides being unexpected and unlikely.

The observation that sufferers of depression are often those who we least expect is somewhat of a cliche, but clearly it is something that needs reminding. Too often we remain shocked and surprised when someone like Williams commits suicide, but maybe that reflects the strong sociocultural pressure to keep one’s sadness buried as much as possible. Maybe it testifies to how strong the stigma of depression, suicide, and addiction are, such that people would rather put on a mask and trudge through it at their own risk, rather than let it become exposed or admitting to a problem.

Of course, these are all just visceral musings and generalizations, not any sort of sociocultural prescription. Tragedies like this naturally elicit a lot of self-reflection and soul-searching, perhaps because there is something fundamentally relatable with how people choose to cope with their struggles, whether through humor, lashing out, or addiction.

My thoughts on all this are incomplete. Expect more later my friends. Until then, feel free to share your own ideas as usual.




The Myth of the Good Old Days

A lot of people seem to believe that there was such a thing as “the good old days,” when people had better morals and society was more ethical. Heck, even the quality of music was better. But my question is this: if morals have been declining in this day and age, when was it ever higher? Can we really name a time when there was less injustice, criminality, and corruption?

It may seem that way looking back on it, but that’s just confirmation bias: younger people didn’t live back then, so they see and know only the good stuff. Older folks see it better because it’s less unfamiliar and chaotic then the rapidly changing world they live in now. There’s always been bad music. There’s always been infidelity. Drug abuse and teen pregnancy isn’t new, while divorce would have been just as high in the past were it legal (spousal abuse and patriarchy have been prevalent throughout history).

Indeed, I appreciate you raising the point. I should have clarified (there’s only so much I want to right in a status update :P)

The 1950s seemed idyllic, and gets cited a lot as one of the high points of our society. But that’s mostly if you were a white heterosexual male. The era of our Founders seemed more virtuous political, until you factor in the treatment of Blacks, Natives, and women (to say nothing the understated political problems that bedeviled that period too). And medieval times should be an obvious nonstarter: we reveled in public executions and even tortured animals for entertainment (slowly lowering a live cat into a fire was pretty popular in continental Europe).

Part of the problem is data overload from mass media – they don’t call this the Information Age for nothing. We’re so connected to everything that goes on everywhere that we’re exposed to a lot more bad news then we once were. Crime seems bad because we actually have journalists and news reports to inform us about things that may have once been unknown. Natural disasters and wars seem more common for the same reason. For most of history the average person didn’t know what was going on beyond his little town, let alone halfway across the world. Again, it’s just confirmation bias.

It’s also the result of our tendency to see things in a linear way, so we think humans are either progressing or degenerating. But it’s never just one or the other. Every generation struggles with new problems, old problems, or old problems that have been altered by different contexts. We improve in some areas, worsen in others, or stay the same in still others. Complexity is the nature of human minds and thus human societies. There’s very little black or white in any of our collective endeavors.