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The Limits of Love

Love, we're told, heals all wounds. Love makes the world go round. Love is the holy balm, the essence of life itself. And I would say yes to all of these statements... yes, but. Yes, but there are limits to love. I believe in love. And I also believe in luck.
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My facebook community, at least a significant part of it, is reeling from the suicide of Robin Williams. None of us would deny what one person wrote: "People! This is a celebrity! We don't know him! Let's talk about people we do know!" Undeniable. He was a celebrity, not a personal friend. And yet, it turns out we need to process this together. We do care. We do feel that, in some real way, that we knew him, and our hearts are broken.

Here's what I knew immediately when suddenly he was gone: I loved him. Not the characters he played, some of whom I loved too, but the man I intuited behind those characters. The man. I loved him because I always felt his generosity as a comedian and an actor, I loved even the pain that so obviously was part of who he was, pain that he struggled mightily to transform into humor and joy. I loved the way he reached out to the world with everything he had, and gave it to away.

Watching him on talk shows was like watching that kid in the classroom who just can't stop, even when it is inevitable that trouble will follow. His energy was so hyperkinetic that hosts would stop in their tracks and gape at him, helplessly, knowing that there was nothing to be done but witness. We viewers would gape, too, as if a fire extinguisher fell off the wall and began spinning, spewing liquid around our living rooms. Exhaling only with the commercial break.

As I have witnessed the conversations taking place in the wake of his suicide -- about depression, about grief, about being bipolar and about loving people who have depression or are bipolar, what I have realized is this: We are all grappling with the edges of the power of love. We loved him, and yet he committed suicide. Our love -- the real love of millions of people -- did not save him. If so much love couldn't save him, where is the hope for the rest of us poor schlubs?

Love, we're told, heals all wounds. Love makes the world go round. Love is the holy balm, the essence of life itself. And I would say yes to all of these statements... yes, but. Yes, but there are limits to love. I believe in love. And I also believe in luck.

I was lucky to be born with a buoyant personality, not to be prone to depression. God knows I have plenty of other challenges, but a depressive personality isn't one of them. It's not because I'm morally, or spiritually, or mentally superior to those who do suffer from depression. I was lucky. Just as I am lucky that my child doesn't have cancer, that I have never been in a plane crash, that my house has not been damaged in major weather events. It's not that I 'deserve' these things, any more than anyone deserves a child with cancer, or to be in a plane crash, or to suffer physically or mentally. I'm lucky.

I was also lucky to be born with privilege of class and race and nationality, and seeing how that plays out in the world convinces me that life is fundamentally not fair. Fairness is not built into the world. Creating fairness is something people have to choose day after day. Love calls us to do that work. Fairness is not about luck -- it's about a collective commitment to love, a love so big that it holds everyone. That's part of what we loved about Robin Williams -- that his love was so big, that it held so many. Naming luck as a factor in life doesn't mean that I surrender to unjust power structures without a fight and say, "Oh, bad luck for the oppressed!"

I say yes to love, because love is the best path we can choose. Yes to loving everyone, not just the privileged, and using our love to create more fairness. But as for luck, we can't choose it: That's what makes it luck. Good luck or bad luck, it is outside our grasp. We can choose to call what happens to us -- those things outside our control -- fate, or karma, or God's will. We can choose to see 'good things' as God's reward and 'bad things' as God's punishment. But it makes more sense to me to just call it luck: Good luck, and bad luck. And I believe that all we can do, the only way we can live our very lives, is to take whatever cards we are dealt, and play them as kindly, gratefully, and generously as we can.

While the love of Harry Potter's mother saved him from Voldemort, our love couldn't save Robin Williams from his need to exit the planet. Love alone is not sufficient to save a marriage, or to heal our adult child's meth addiction. Friends who suffer from depression say that when they are in that bleak hole, they can't feel love at all. Love is not everything, but I still believe it is the best we can offer each other. It is the clearest path I have found to walk. Knowing that it holds no guarantees. And knowing that my heart will be broken every day.

Rest in Peace, Robin Williams. The legacy you left is as evident in the grieving world as it is in the body of work we will revisit. Our sadness -- or anger, disappointment, fear -- at your departure is part of the relationship between you and the world that does not end with your death. You are loved.

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