Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #085. First published in the St. Cloud Times online and in print Aug. 26, 2014

What more is there to say? Comb through news reports, Facebook posts, Twitter, and you'd conclude there isn't anything left unsaid about Robin Williams' death.

And yet here I am adding something. My excuse: There is still more to be said about why we've said so much and what all this saying says about us.

I need to say this immediately. You would expect the news to have hit me with special force. My father committed suicide in 1983, at age 69, six years into retirement from a 40-year career as a pastor. I subsequently learned he, like Williams, had battled depression most of his life. However, as was the way in those days, it wasn't talked about, and I was pretty oblivious.

In the ensuing 31 years, I've come to terms with it. I wish he hadn't done it, and I think, in fact, he shouldn't have. But I have neither the need nor the warrant to judge, and his death is far from the defining parameter of my life. His note said the demons had won. I believe he was mistaken.

The news about Williams didn't send me into a tailspin; it mainly prompted empathy for his family, especially his children.

But many people were hit very hard. "Devastated," "felt like vomiting," "like the loss of the most sparkly child you've ever known" are some of the Facebook posts.

There are several reasons for this.

First, we have a dearth of heroes these days. There are, of course, many in our armed forces, including some recent Medal of Honor recipients and the thousands of men and women who have died or been gravely injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they don't achieve (or want) celebrity status. Williams, who gave his time and talent to entertain the troops, knew the honor they deserve. But our politics, businesses and professions aren't brimming with heroes, and the title "American Idol" for a cutthroat talent competition says it all.

Second, we are hungry for meaning. The "hopes and fears of all the years" that the Christmas carol says were met in Bethlehem are for many today focused on people we don't know personally but who seem larger than life, especially if they touch us in our heart and on our funny bone. And as author Anne Lamott says in her Williams post, "There can be meaning without things making sense."

Third, I suspect there are lots of folks who figure Williams knew them better than some of the people closest to them do. This is partly because in "Good Will Hunting" he portrayed — convincing enough to win an Oscar — a wizardly psychotherapist, but his instinct for the healing power of comedy suffused everything he said and did.

The most moving of all the Facebook posts is a reminiscence by a man whose grandparents died in a murder-suicide. After the service, the family stopped at a doughnut shop. Williams happened to be there, saw they were sad, and "started making pleasant conversation, which quickly turned into him making my parents smile, and soon after he had us all laughing." Lamott again: "Laughter is carbonated holiness."

And what does all this saying say about us?

Yes, we're thirsty for heroes, searching for meaning, longing to be understood. But there are at least two things more.

First, there is a kind of national relief in getting suicide and depression and its links to diseases such as Parkinson's into the open. I wanted to name suicide as the cause of my dad's death in the obituary, but the rest of the family balked. We missed an opportunity. The national obsession with Williams will, at least for a while, save lives.

Second, grief for Williams has cut right through walls of separation we've built. Silent generation, baby boomers, Xers, millennials all are united in celebration and sorrow. We yearn for community. This is a tough way to get it. Perhaps it's Williams' parting gift to us.