The comedian and the Lifeguard
Comedy is all about timing and Robin Williams was a master of it. So much so that even in his tragic death there exists an interesting piece of timing that may allow us to extract some good out of the bad of someone discarding the most precious gift.
The day before Robin Williams died, the Gospel for the Sunday Mass was Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on water and encouraging Peter to do likewise. Spoiler alert: Peter’s faith falters and he begins to sink. Calling on Jesus for salvation, St. Peter is rescued.
The very next day the news broke that Robin Williams had died by his own hand from the one-two punch of clinical depression and the onset of Parkinson’s disease. The outpouring of love and affection from multitudes who felt a “connection” to the comedian/actor says a lot about the power of television.
To give it a sense of scale, the number one rated television show last week was “America’s Got Talent,” which attracted just over 10 million viewers.
When “Mork and Mindy,” the sitcom that made Robin Williams a star, debuted in 1978, it averaged more than 22 million viewers a week, a number only good enough to rank it the fourth highest rated show of that year.
Television in the latter part of the 1970s was a different animal. The “Big Three” — ABC, CBS and NBC — still called the shots. It was a time when late-night consisted of only Johnny Carson and the rubble of every other late-night talk show format that had the temerity to challenge the king for his crown.
I do not pretend to have any special insight into Robin Williams than people far more qualified than I have already examined. I do know that his humor, though manic at times, was never cruel and his reputation as a dramatic actor was well deserved.
What is more important to me and what does make his suicide all the sadder is that it appears he was a very nice man. Yes, he had the multiple marriage disasters that seem to be a requirement for maintaining a Screen Actors Guild card, and his financial woes are becoming more apparent.
But we also learned this exquisitely imperfect man was universally loved by the people in his life for his goodness, his kindness and his friendship. He had a lot to live for.
Which brings me back to the Sea of Galilee.
I personally know someone who suffers from clinical depression. This is a person of profound faith in God and in His only begotten Son. But as strong as this faith is, it is no more an immunization from the ravages of mental illness as it would be a talisman to ward off pancreatic cancer.
Why the world wags on from disaster to disaster can be traced back to our first parents. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that upon observing Adam and Eve’s lame excuses at the tree of knowledge, God muttered, “And this is why we can’t have nice things…”
My friend with clinical depression takes medication, listens to the doctors and depends on a loving, faith-filled spouse. But this person has another arrow in the quiver that Robin Williams may have been without: a “lifeguard” — the same lifeguard that St. Peter reached out for when he had a moment of doubt and fear on the Sea of Galilee.
They have been showing a lot of clips of Robin Williams lately, and if any of them have something to do with a walk of faith of any kind I haven’t seen them. When news of his death reached me, I immediately thought of the Gospel I heard less than 24 hours before… talk about timing.
From the evidence of the ultimate act of “self-medication” Robin Williams chose, I imagine his battle with clinical depression must have felt very much like what Peter felt with waves rising over his head, and what my friend and others with this terrible disease feel when they find themselves in the throes of abject darkness.
Yes, the medicine my friend takes and the loyal and beautiful support from friends and family are integral to good health — all things it appears Robin Williams had in his life as well. The anomaly in my friend’s journey with this terrible disease is faith in Jesus — the belief that no matter how high the seas, how dark the cave, there is an ever-faithful lifeguard who knows them by name and ensures they are never alone.
It is pointless to ponder a “what if” scenario of Robin Williams stumbling into a church on Aug. 10 and hearing that Gospel message of infallible friendship, and changing course on Aug. 11. All we are left with are our prayers and trust in God’s ability to sort things out.
But for those scores of Robin Williams fans who seem to connect with him through their collective fondness, the message can still be told. Maybe some of them are in a similar situation of despair.
They can be encouraged to not only seek the medical help necessary for treatment of mental illness but also be encouraged to seek out the one constant lifeguard who will always have His hand stretched out in the same direction… toward them.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry. He has been a contributing writer for the National Catholic Register for many years and has also been published in Our Sunday Visitor and This Rock.