The Prisoner Can Not Release Himself From Prison: Thoughts on the Passing of Robin Williams

The death of Robin Williams by apparent suicide has touched a raw nerve. Few have embodied so much manic energy while at the same time possessing such a laser focus on profound truths. In addition to countless unforgettable moments from film, TV and stand-up comedy Robin Williams has left a gaping hole. Most significantly and incomparably in the lives of his close family and friends, but in a real way in the consciousness of countless others for whom he stood for a sense of the indomitable. Whether chained reluctantly to a script or flying free on a stage like a balloon spitting out air, Williams was always a talent that could not be held down, an inspiration waiting to burst out. And now he will also be known as one who took his own life.

To relive the power and dignity of Robin Williams' core message of self-actualization and challenging the status quo, many turn to his iconic role of John Keating in Dead Poets Society. However, Robin Williams also played roles that tapped into a world more touched by the darkness and cynicism at the heart of his genius.

Of course, Robin Williams was not John Keating, any more than he was Adrian Kronauer from Good Morning Vietnam, Sean Maguire from Good Will Hunting, or Mork from the Planet Ork. He was a talented man who openly struggled with his own demons yet managed not only to provide extraordinary humor, but, by all accounts, to be an exquisite human being. Or as Steve Martin said about his fellow gentile -- a mensch.

In the Talmud, there is a series of unexpectedly poignant stories of how even the Sages, paragons of faith, are struck by serious bouts of depression or "suffering consciousness" as the Hebrew could be rendered. In each case the Sage is visited by another who after asking certain questions about suffering and reward, offers his hand and raises the other up. In one situation, the Sage who falls ill is the same one who in a previous story had come to ask the questions. The Talmud wonders why he needed another person to come if he already knew the right questions to ask. The answer: A prisoner can not get himself out of prison. The questions are more or less irrelevant. The key is not found in the words but in the presence of another person extending a hand to help.

Sadly and with great irony, a clip from one of Robin Williams last films has Williams looking directly into the camera and saying, "Remember, suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems." This clip is now flying around the Internet without any mention that this phrase made its way into the film as a kind of send up of the ease with which people idealize others they don't even know and throw around catchphrases detached from the reality of those who suffer.

Because as well-meaning as this phrase is, it manages to play into a dangerous framework. One of depression's harshest effects is to trick a person into seeing life as static, closed, that prison without hope. Once one defines life in terms of being a problem, temporary or otherwise, the only avenue to find a solution becomes the permanent one. What made Robin Williams work so moving and his death so shocking is that in so much of what he did he taught the opposite... Life, even and especially in all its vicissitudes, its pleasures and its pains, its darkness and its unexpected light -- all of it is the stuff of holiness, the map of possibility, and a great unknown. While death may be undiscovered country, it is life that is the true mystery worth exploring. And for all the voices that Robin Williams used, it was his presence, not his words, that was the key to the lesson.

Williams, when he was on Inside the Actors Studio answered the host that if there is a heaven he hopes there's laughter -- that he hears God saying "Two Jews walk into a bar...." The image of such a human, fleeting, volatile pleasure as laughter being found in heaven is beautiful and I pray that he's right. What I know is that with his passing there is now less laughter to be found on Earth.

May those who feel imprisoned find the hand that reaches toward them, may all who are in darkness be brought safely into light,