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.

 

 

 

An Excellent Summary of the Tragedy of WWI

As the centennial of history’s first world war falls further behind us, so too will the necessary ruminations and analyses that remain relevant in our fragile international system. While there are nor shortage of well-written and deeply-reflective pieces on the subject, the following one by Burt Solomon of The Atlantic is one of my favorite. Although this excerpt stood out the most, I strongly recommend reading the whole thing — it is succinct but on point.

And for this, more than 16 million men went to their slaughter, many of them in cruel and creative ways. In trenches that stretched an unbroken 475 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border, the Germans constructed walls using corpses, so that French troops who captured a trench hung canteens from protruding ankles. Along the Somme River, in northern France, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded in 1916 for an Allied advance of seven miles. Poisonous gas filled a quarter of all the artillery shells fired on the western front in 1918. More than a third of German males born between 1892 and 1895 died in the course of the war. The killing spread to civilians in England and France attacked by German zeppelins. War was no longer noble, even as some of the men who fought it were noble beyond compare.

It was a sad, pointless war, for which we’re still paying a price. A hard-hearted peace treaty and a ravaged economy produced a “lost generation” of young Germans and led directly to the rise of Hitler and an even uglier worldwide conflagration. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement reached by Britain and France in 1916 drew arbitrary boundary lines across the postwar Middle East—around Iraq, for instance—that are returning deadly dividends to this day. The toppling of the Russian monarchy and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created a balkanized Europe that, as recently as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over strife-torn Ukraine, pains us still. The world was a nastier place after the war than before it.

All wars tell us something about the basest regions of human nature, the First World War (caustically named in 1918 by an English journalist who thought it would not be the last) more than most. About the nature of covetousness, the perils of insecurity, the ease of losing human control over human events.

We’ve come a long way in many respects, but only up to a point. Complacency with regards to a seemingly stable and prosperous future had also proceeded the First World War. This isn’t intended to be alarmist — I am well aware that the world is a far more peaceful place than it has ever been, relatively speaking — but it is a reminder that peaceful coexistence and the overcoming of our basest motives for violence and cruelty require tremendous vigilance and an understanding of the mistakes from the past. That is pretty much the only good thing to take away from such a horrifically pointless but deadly conflict.

An Interesting Reflection on Casual Love

Everyone seems to have their own opinion on love, a word so loaded with meaning and interpretation that it’s no wonder that it continues to elicit so much confusion and emotion across history and society. But every so often I come across a fairly engaging and insightful musing on the subject, such as the one expressed by indie jazz musician Carsie Blanton on her blog. It’s a somewhat long and interesting read that I highly recommend, but the following is the crux of her point:

There are advantages to separating the wacky, butterflies-in-the-gut, unpredictable feeling of “love” from the ideally rational, cool-headed decisions and agreements of “commitment”. For one: love is just not a good enough reason to commit to somebody (trust me, I’ve tried). You need a few other ingredients: mutuality, compatibility, and availability, for starters.
The big advantage for the lover is that falling in love will feel less scary, life-threatening, and crazy-making. As long as love is theoretically reserved for people whom you want to date and possibly marry, falling in love will be confusing and dramatic. If we interpret this particular set of feelings and thoughts as an epic, life-changing event, we’ll have no choice but to get really, really attached to our beloved. We’ll throw a lot of expectations at them (“Love me back! Love me only! Love me forever!”), and feel hurt and resentful if the feeling is not mutual. We’ll imprint upon them like baby ducks, and resolve to stick with them through thick and thin, through hell or high water, through abuse and neglect and lies and bickering and frustration and mutually-assured destruction, whether or not it brings us (or anyone else) any kind of joy.
The big advantage for the beloved is that being loved will feel less like an attack, and more like a gift. The little-discussed fact is that it’s super uncomfortable to be loved when the feeling is not mutual (see my song Please). So uncomfortable, in fact, that many of us would rather act like callous, cold-hearted assholes than be in the same room as the person who loves us. We panic, we get distant, we deny any interest or care for the other person, we stop returning their texts. But that’s not an aversion to love, or to the lover; it’s the attachment and expectation being hurled in our direction with such intensity. If love was casual, we could take it as a high compliment, say “thanks!”, and feel some warm fuzzies. We might also begin to feel some compassion for our lover (who, after all, has a stomach full of butterflies and can’t eat or sleep very well), which might allow us to make better and kinder decisions about how to respond.
If love was casual, perhaps it wouldn’t collide into our sense of identity or our plans for the future at such high velocity. It wouldn’t feel so personal. If it’s not mutual, so what? If it doesn’t turn into a relationship, so what? I have feelings and desires all the time that go unsatisfied. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times), late at night, I want Chef’s Perfect Chocolate ice cream, but Creole Creamery closes at 10pm. Do I panic? Do I call Creole Creamery and leave a series of desperate messages? Do I curl into a ball and lament that without Chef’s Perfect Chocolate, I am a broken person who is not worthy of ice cream? No. I deal. I feel my feelings, whine a little if I need to, and go without. Like a grown-ass woman.
And here’s my favorite part: if love is casual — not something rare and dramatic and potentially painful, but something common and easy and mutually enjoyable — we all get to feel more love, and share more love.
As usual of late, I sadly don’t have the time to weigh in much further, although I will say that I’ve felt very enriched to have large and diverse individuals that I would consider loved ones. There’s a certain taboo about using the word love so loosely and broadly, and I can understand how it might seem odd or even cheapening of the concept.
But in a world where we encounter and interact with more and more people than every before, I feel it’s untenable to restrict your platonic and romantic aspirations to just one or a few people for life. So many more individuals come and go and we find ourselves making unexpected connections with someone new regularly — whether online or in person — that try as we might, we still find ourselves changing up and/or expanding our existing circle of loved ones.
Obviously, we can only have so many people to love — due to lack of time, emotional investment, etc — but as Blanton notes, the wider we expand our circle of compassion to include baseline kindness and consideration, the easier it will be to deal with the inevitable changes and losses in our relationships that occur throughout our lives. It’s chaotic, stressful, unpredictable, and at times maddening, but it’s also quite a lot of fun and education along the way.
I’m not sure if I’m making any sense — that’s love for you — but as always, please give your two cents.
Hat tip to my friend Miri for first sharing this article.

Brief Reflections on a Holocaust Execution

Execution of Jews near Ivanhorod by German Einsatzgruppe during World War II. A woman is attempting to protect a child with her own body just before they are fired on with rifles at close range. This now iconic photograph was mailed from the Eastern Front to Germany and intercepted by a member of the Home Army Polish resistance.

British journalist Robert Fisk declared it “one of the most impressive and persuasive images of the Nazi Holocaust.” It was featured in numerous books, and at photo-exhibits both in Poland and Germany, as “precious and terrible evidence” of “the Nazi cruelties in Eastern Europe.” It’s disturbing to think that this horrific tragedy was but a small fraction of the atrocities that were going on throughout the duration of the war.

I wonder what is going through the minds of not only the victims, but their murderers; what kind of a person could take human life this easily? What state of mind would you have to be to do something so heinous, especially if you have no prior history of such cruelty (as many such men didn’t)? How does one not pause at the sight of a mother shielding her child? If the perpetrators survived the war, how did they go through the rest of their lives? Did they rationalize these actions, eventually regret them, or tried to forget?

It’s difficult to come to grips with how normal people are capable of such remarkable evil given the right circumstances. Most genocides and other mass-scale injustices require the participation or tacit approval of many people, far more than could be deemed insane or criminal. It’s disturbing how relatively easy it is for certain societies to acquiesce or take part in barbarity they couldn’t previously concede to. It’s definitely something to keep in mind.