“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” These were among the first words celebrated journalist Joan Didion wrote after her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, suffered a sudden and fatal massive coronary at the dinner table in late December 2003. She typed them during the first days of the New Year and then allowed them to sit, quiet and undisturbed, on her computer until the following October when she began outlining what would become her National Book Award-winning memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking.
What strikes me about these lines – incidentally, the same thing that Didion noticed but for a different reason – is the word “ordinary.” No matter how far down the social media rabbit hole I grudgingly venture – regardless of how much daily time I now allocate for posting, tweeting, updating, and “liking” – the modern instant will never seem ordinary to me. With countless online platforms, pulpits, and bullhorns at our disposal, we rarely allow our thoughts to sit for nine seconds, let alone nine months as Didion did. Patience, as a virtue, has predictably become passé in an age when calling “firsties” in a YouTube comments section merits esteem. Life has always changed in the instant. But now, it seems, we react, respond, and perhaps even grieve in the instant.
On August 11th, life changed in the instant for many of us when Robin Williams committed suicide. When the news broke, mass and social media let out a collective exhale – though it seemed more like one of those sneezes that sneaks up on you – of exclusives, tributes, hashtags, tears, and, thanks to the internet, inevitable, small globules of vitriol (e.g., Williams’ daughter, Zelda, weathering a Twitter attack in the days following her father’s passing). It was an outpouring of shock, confusion, sadness, and gratitude for a man most of us only ever met through a screen and yet owe a tremendous debt. And then, after a week or so, nothing – maybe the occasional tumbleweed and a whistling wind. Mourning, whether it be for a loved one or a beloved entertainer, needn’t go on indefinitely but, still, how strange to hear a torrent of voices one moment and a few faint drips the next, like a faucet being abruptly turned off.
Now, as I write this column, it’s hard to tell which is the tougher act to follow: taking the stage or late-night couch after a frenzied, mile-a-millisecond Williams improv onslaught or finding something left to say two months after that first news cycle and social media purgation of emotions.
We can easily eke out 140 characters or less in the instant, but I doubt that we’ve learned to process that quickly. Emotion surfaces at a moment’s notice; however, understanding usually takes a bit longer to ripen. There’s a gestation period to create meaning that our right-now-or-it’s-too-late-to-matter social media lifestyle can’t possibly accommodate. In our emotion-fueled reactions, we often say too much, too little, or, in my case, the wrong thing altogether.
The day after Williams died I read a small handful of disparaging remarks floating around Twitter and various comment sections, challenging his manhood or criticizing him for “abandoning” his family. Still somewhat in shock that we now inhabited a Robin Williamsless world – for some reason, it’s still difficult to fathom – I tweeted the following two-part message in response:
A couple days later, I got a call from a friend now living in New Mexico with his wife and two young daughters. He’s suffered from severe depression since before we became friends at Purdue University as engineering undergrads. He’d seen my tweets. “Here’s the thing,” he explained. “It’s not that depression makes you forget that you’re a husband and father. But, when you’re dealing with it, it makes you forget what being those things really means – what they require of you.” A couple weeks later, in an issue of TIME that featured Williams on its cover — in all black and posing as though ready to either pounce on the cameraman or break into a West Side Story finger-snapping dance – and a collection of tribute pieces, retired talk show host and Williams’ friend Dick Cavett echoed my friend’s thoughts in a brief essay called “Boxing the Black Dog”: “The worst agony devised for man [severe depression] doesn’t allow you to feel any emotion for kids, spouses, lovers, parents … even your beloved dog. And least of all for yourself.”
Now, my tweets in Williams’ defense had been well-intentioned and compassionate. I don’t regret posting them. No doubt they mirrored countless other comments, responses, and messages scattered across the social media universe: good-hearted, but ultimately projecting raw emotion rather than legitimate understanding at a discussion worth having. A barrage of rationales, insights, and arguments from people, like me, who have “Psych 101” on their college transcripts and overwhelmingly fall on one side of the anything-but-fine line between having the blues and living the blues.
Elsewhere, in the wake of Williams’ death, musician and spoken word artist Henry Rollins outraged nearly everyone who read his LA Weekly column in which he wrote, “When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind … I no longer take this person seriously.” Harsh words from someone who quickly recanted, apologized, and claimed to also suffer from depression. This is also a guy who once rode to gigs alone in a dark equipment trailer rather than be in the same van with his Black Flag bandmates. But there was no real empathy or even a modicum of understanding to be found in that first column.
Two elements of that Rollins diatribe were particularly unnerving. First, he calls for those suffering from severe depression, like Williams, to simply suck it up. Anyone who has shared their life with someone who battles severe depression or another debilitating issue knows that phrases like “suck it up” are the most useless and hurtful words you can utter. It’s the solution of a person who really has no grasp whatsoever on the problem – one I’ve suggested to a loved one and soon regretted. Secondly, there’s that abhorrent idea of “canceling” a person; you cancel a takeout order, cable service, or a date – not a person. There’s an absolutism present in that sentiment – and in Rollins’ mass judgment that the nearly 40,000 people (his statistic) in America who annually commit suicide “blew it” – that most of us aren’t comfortable with.
But again, Rollins’ response, like my own, even if at the volatile polar opposite of my kind-but-naïve stance, stemmed from a gut reaction – the lifeblood of modern media. As a society, we reconcile our knee-jerk tendencies by suggesting that tragedies – be it Williams’ suicide, sex crimes perpetrated by high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, or the ongoing situation in Ferguson – at least present the opportunity to begin a serious and open dialogue on a critical issue. But how often does that conversation really come to fruition, and, more importantly, how interested are we really in sitting still for it? For instance, Rollins’ column, “Fuck Suicide”, has been shared on Facebook 32,000 times. His more levelheaded follow-up, in which he talks about the need to educate himself on the subject, has seen about one-eighth that amount of sharing.
Many instants have come and gone since Williams’ suicide, and my gut long ago ceased posing as a shrink on Twitter. In the last two months, I’ve probably watched more Williams footage than I had over the past decade: late-night appearances, all his Netflix movies (including the eerily foreboding World’s Greatest Dad), and even Mork & Mindy reruns, which I grew up on as a kid. I think what surprises me most is that I actually prefer quiet Robin, as opposed to the manic firing on all cylinders (what Williams referred to as “voluntary Tourette’s”) we’ve come to associate most with him. Whether it be in a role like counselor Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting or one of the rare occasions when he dialed down during an interview, there was such a weight to Williams when he spoke softly and allowed himself a moment to breathe and be still. His voice carried such resonance, and we could hear wounds and vulnerability but also warmth and a sense of hope. It’s a voice we won’t soon forget.
Last week, I went out for dinner with two friends. I mentioned that I was struggling to hammer out my column on the Williams aftermath. This led to more than an hour of running through the gamut of films, bits, and memories he left us – a wake of sorts for an entertainer who, at least in some small way, shaped how we laugh and look at the world. It was a wonderful evening and reminded me of a line from that Cavett piece. After killing in a stand-up set at a small club, Williams told Cavett, “Isn’t it funny how I can bring great happiness to all these people. But not to myself.” That’s the tragic irony that many have touched upon when discussing Williams. He gave us so much, and yet we couldn’t reciprocate with what he needed.
My friends and I concluded our impromptu Williams tribute that night by each picking a favorite Williams quote. When my turn came, I quoted the final line – one that has always moved me – from Hook, Steven Spielberg’s 1991 Peter Pan revamp: “To live will be an awfully big adventure.”
If there is an adventure beyond this one, I like to think Williams heard me and mumbled, “Son of a bitch. He stole my line.”
If you or someone you know have thoughts of suicide, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).