When Robin Williams died yesterday all the other news took a back seat, and that's okay.
A friend of mine posted (jokingly, I think) that the conflicts in Gaza, Syria, and Iraq must have taken the day off, as did the Ebola outbreak, since there was no other news. I was surprised to realize that my response was anger at the post. I felt like my emotional response was a little silly. After all there are many people dying in those situations around the world, and there are horrible things happening in those troubled places. But I still felt like the death of Robin Williams was important enough to preempt the rest of the news. I responded that Robin Williams had given me joy and made me laugh more times than Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Ebola combined. All those things were shitty yesterday, and they will be tomorrow too.
On August 10th Robin Williams was a comedian and actor with a singular impact and scope. His stand-up was legendary, he had played an incredible range of characters, he had shared openly his struggles with addiction, he toured extensively with the USO bringing his comedy to service members around the world, and he was struggling with depression.
On August 11th Robin Williams was dead, and it looks like it was suicide.
But why would one entertainer's death be so noteworthy that the news focused solely on his passing when there was so much else going on in the world? Why would the President of the United States of America issue a statement on his passing? Why would Conan O'Brien end his show with talking about receiving the news that Williams had passed? Why is my Facebook wall dominated by people talking about Williams? One woman even talked about having to pull over this morning on her way to work because she was overcome by the loss of Robin Williams.
I think there are a number of reasons. One of the simplest and possibly more cynical reasons is that Robin Williams was one person. When it comes to grief and dealing with loss the human mind can be grossly inadequate. When faced with the deaths of hundreds or thousands the scope of the tragedy is so great that the mind does not even try to comprehend it, the mind simply resets to zero. For an example of this think back to September 11th, 2001. For how many of us was the attacks on the World Trade Center too horrible to comprehend until we saw images of individuals falling from the windows. Thousands died, but it is the images of individuals that haunt us.
When hundreds or thousands are dying, displaced, or suffering because of violence, ignorance, and intolerance it is overwhelming. It might give us general feelings of sadness and unease, but often we just shrug and move on. There is nothing we can do and it's no one we know. When one individual we all know dies at his own hand because he could not bear to go on living we can all grasp it. We can all feel the loss of that one person.
Napoleon Bonaparte wrote that the grief of one loyal dog struck him harder than the thousands of soldiers that had died at his orders. The singular can feel more real because it is within our grasp. We can all understand the uncomplicated grief of the dog who has lost its master. We can all grasp the sadness of the funny man that brought happiness to millions, but could not overcome his own demons.
But the sadness at the loss of Robin Williams is not just because he was one person, as opposed to faceless numbers. The loss of Robin Williams is sharp because of what he represents, particularly in contrast to other bad news.
When we read or hear about Islamic State (the group formerly known as ISIS or ISIL) we hear about unimaginable depravity. Seven-year-olds married off to fundamentalist militants, rape and murder, hundreds of thousands displaced, children dying of exposure, mass executions, children being beheaded. The idea that a group perpetrating such atrocities could actually exist, let alone be winning a war and re-writing political boundaries is unfathomable.
Whether we realize it or not, we all know on some level that the only reason that society works is because most people are good people. The vast majority, I would guess 90%-plus. On any given day, in any given situation, 99.9% of people are going to do the right thing. Even bad people are not always doing bad things. We walk down crowded streets and no one shoots at us, molests us, or robs us. For every bad thing that happens to you just think about how many people you interact with in passing that do nothing to harm you, or who even actively help you. If people were not good and cooperative by default then human society could not exist.
We all know other humans, and we know that humans seem to generally want similar things. To live in comfort, to raise their families, and to be happy. Groups like Islamic State seem so far removed from what any human could want that it boggles the mind. Then when you read that Islamic State is in fact attracting more followers and Al Qaeda members are defecting to Islamic State it just makes you want to throw up your hands.
There is nothing I can do about Islamic State. The closest I can come to doing something about Islamic State is support fighting against them. When the only thing that one can do to combat evil is to support more death and destruction it is saddening. Especially when one feels, as I do, that more killing will not resolve the problems that lead to the formation of such a group. It is a hopeless feeling.
But then you contrast that hopelessness with someone like Robin Williams. Robin Williams was just one person. Flawed and brilliant. He made no secret of his struggles. But he also brought happiness to millions. He toured the world with the USO bringing comedy and happiness to soldiers around the world being thrown into the situations that make one feel hopeless. He shone a light that reminded people that there was goodness and happiness in the world.
Williams also had a longevity to his career. Generations have grown up with him as a part of the pop-culture landscape. His roles as the Genie in Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire made him a part of millions of childhoods. But not all of his roles were so great, and many his roles were not universally loved. The man laid some real stinkers of movies. But even when he made a horrible movie his popularity as a public figure did not wane.
In recent decades many of Williams' roles were darker. He carried and communicated a sadness and darkness in many of his roles that belied the perception of him as a funnyman. But we always knew that even as he expressed pain, sadness, and scarring of the soul that he could also turn around and bring levity.
In many ways it was his darkness and flaws that made him so moving. We knew that he struggled with addiction. You could see his sadness. But he still was able to bring happiness to people. He showed that even if we have darkness in us that we can still do good things. Robin Williams represented a hopeful idea. The idea that we can be flawed ourselves and still do good things.
That is why I am totally OK with the media making a huge deal out of Robin Williams' death. Yes there are other problems in the world, but that does not detract from the pain of losing a public figure like Robin Williams. He showed that one does not have to be a perfect person to do good things. And his death shows that even people who do good things can suffer and struggle. Those are both lessons that I see as more important than knowing that there are bad people doing bad things.