The news reached me, like most people, last Monday evening. Almost instantly the country was awash with stories, news reports, articles, celebrity tributes, talking heads offering their two cents about depression and suicide and addiction.
I let the information sink in and settle down. I tried to imagine the pain that he must have been feeling in those finally minutes and hours and days, tried to imagine the pain that his family must be feeling now. But mostly, I just felt sad and confused and scared.
Aside from his family and close friends, the reaction among the rest of the world seems to be largely the same. We mutter a few “so sad’s” and “unbelievable’s.” We shake our head in disbelief. We say a few silent prayers for Mr. Williams and his family. Some of us might think about people we know, people we love, people we have loved who are or were similarly suffering and struggling. We ask the unanswerable questions. How could someone who seems to be living a charmed life be so unhappy? We wonder at the incomprehensibility and tragedy of it all. We mourn vicariously, posting tenderhearted condolences to Facebook and Twitter. We re-watch the old movies and recite our favorite quotes. We consider the need for better mental health care services. We talk about depression and addiction and what it might feel like to lose all hope.
We offer theories and speculation and conjecture because, of course, we couldn’t really know what it’s like. He was different. His situation was different. This doesn’t really affect us. Or does it?
And then, eventually, we move on. The shock of the news softens a bit. The media shifts to the next big story. Our attention is called to the latest calamity in our own life – a leaking bathroom sink, a tight work deadline, a sick child.
Yet, still, it’s there.
The pain. The realness. The closeness of it all.
I can sit here my little house in suburban Illinois, after muttering the typical I can’t believe it’s and so sad’s, and convince myself that this tragedy (or the next one or the next one) has nothing to do with me, that as heart-breaking as the death of a celebrity in California (or the plumes of smoke billowing in Ferguson) is, it doesn’t impact my life, it doesn’t really touch my world.
But, of course, this is a cold and blatant lie. It is a lie that I tell myself in order to put a barrier between my soft center and the hard realness of it all. A way of taking myself out of the eye of the storm and diffusing the heaviness a little bit. A way of pretending that these kinds of tragedies only happen out there, in those other worlds, to other people.
Of course, part of it is a coping mechanism. It is far easier to wrap ourselves in a warm blanket of this-isn’t-happening-to-me-ness because sometimes the cruel reality is just too much to bear. We’ve got enough of our own problems to deal with; we just can’t take on any more.
But these problems – however otherworldly they might seem – are not someone else’s problems; they are our own, they are happening to all of us.
And, really, who among us hasn’t seen the spindly, gripping tentacles of depression? Who among us hasn’t felt the heat from the consuming fire of addiction? Whether within ourselves or someone we love?
I know I have. I have felt the pinch of those twisting tentacles. And I have felt the heat of that blazing fire. I have seen the scars and bruises that those tentacles have left on the afflicted and their loved ones. And I have seen the charred remains that those flames can leave behind.
Sure, we can shake our heads in disbelief, pondering the absurdity of a seemingly on-top-of-the-world celebrity taking his own life. We can silently (and maybe even a little smugly?) pray for those others who suffer. We can ask “why?” until we are blue in the face – Why didn’t he ask for help? Why didn’t he reach out? Why didn’t he do this? Why did he do that? Why? Why? Why? – but the answer will always be a strong and empty I DON’T KNOW. We can talk about what his life was and what his legacy might be, as abstractly as possible, allowing ourselves to bask in his celebrity just enough while maintaining a safe enough distance from the pain and utter realness of it all.
Tragedies tend to have way of clarifying what we know and confusing what we don’t know, and this seems to be no exception. Because for all of the I don’t know’s that Robin Williams’ death has left me with, it has solidified this one universal truth, this one collective mandate: Take care of each other.
I don’t know why some people get sick and why some people don’t. I don’t know why some people get the help that they need and why some people don’t. I don’t know why some people recover and some people don’t and why some people are spared the tentacles or the fire in the first place. I don’t know why terrible nasty shit (sorry, mom) happens and why some people seem to be dealt more of it than others.
But what I do know – and what I continue to believe with every fiber of my being – is that we’re all in this together, that the only way to get through it is to take care of each other. When it’s easy, when it’s hard, when we aren’t even really sure how to take care of each other.
What happens to one of us, happens to all of us. There is no out there. No other world. No other people. There is only right here. Only this world. Only us, together.
Regardless of your political, religious, or social affiliations, it all comes back to this simple obligation: Take care of each other.
Call me naïve or overly optimistic, but I think we have a moral, ethical, and spiritual duty to take care of each other. To reach out to the most vulnerable among us, to those we know are struggling or those we think might be struggling or those who could possibly be struggling. To offer help instead of waiting for someone to ask for it. To give and forgive more than we think we should. To be there for each other. To show up. Again and again and again.
Because in this wild and crazy world – where sometimes it feels like we’re hanging on by a thread and nothing seems to make sense – that’s the only option we’ve got.
Taking care of each other is, after all, sometimes the only thing that we can do.