Reflecting on Robin Williams

This Summer the news leaves me not knowing what to do – wanting to stop reading and hide from it all, wanting to despair, wanting to get on a plane to Iraq, or Israel, or Gaza or Liberia, as if that would help.

But this week we’ve also had to deal with the tragic news of Robin Williams’ suicide.

Like so many other people, I grew up watching Williams.  I laughed, I cried, I thought about life, through Good Will Hunting, and Dead Poet’s Society, and Good Morning Vietnam.  His creative work was wonderful.  His energy was astonishing.

I can’t say anything about his sad, sad death that isn’t being said elsewhere already.  But there are just two moments in the unceasing production of tributes and comments and expressions of grief that have particularly struck me.

The first is from Russell Brand’s contribution in The Guardian on Tuesday.  Brand is typically articulate, and yet he sounds totally fed up.  He muses, “Is it melancholy to think that a world that Robin Williams can’t live in must be broken? To tie this sad event to the overarching misery of our times?”

And if the world is so broken, why do we often manage to get by pretending that it’s not?  Brand notes the irony that we often rely on the genius of men like Robin Williams to distract us.  Williams must have known, says Brand, that we all knew him as “a hilarious stranger that we could rely on to anarchically interrupt, the all-encompassing sadness of the world.”  But now his suicide thrusts us back from the distraction of laughter – even wonder – into a cold reality that is perhaps even worse than we’d previously thought: “today Robin Williams is part of the sad narrative that we used to turn to him to disrupt.”

This is a profound summary of life for humanity outside of Eden – the Garden of God’s paradise and presence.  We fill our lives with meaningless distractions, and moments like this bring an opportunity of rare clarity that we must not let go to waste.  Just last night I sat with 6 friends in a living room and we read from the prophet Haggai, a messenger from God 2,500 years ago.  Again and again in his very short work, he urges us to “give careful thought” to our predicament.

There is something seriously wrong with our world.  Some, aware from a distant memory that the God revealed in the Bible is all-good, and all-powerful, see this messy-ness and jump to the conclusion, “God can’t be there”.  But what if … what if God is there? What if the brokenness of our world is His megaphone to us, entreating us to recognise and acknowledge that our relationship with Him must have gone horribly wrong somewhere along the line?  We even call it “broken”, or “fallen”, because we sense that things ought to be different.  This is not just how things are.  Something has been lost.

And what about this, from Robin Williams himself?  As people scour over his words from recent years, an interview with Decca Aitkenhead has re-emerged from 2010.  She was surprised by the way Williams opened up with remarkable candour and vulnerability about his personal life.  Describing the breakdown of his marriage in 2008, following on from years of struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, Williams looked back on what he had done and said, “You know, I was shameful, and you do stuff that causes disgust, and that’s hard to recover from.  You can say, ‘I forgive you’ and all that stuff, but it’s not the same as recovering from it.  It’s not coming back.”

Williams seemed acutely aware that, when it came to the brokenness of our world, the misery of our times, we are all part of the problem.  And tragically, he also knew how hard it is to wipe the slate clean, to experience true reconciliation and genuine restorative forgiveness.

Agonisingly, Brand and Williams have passed, like ships in the night, two of the most important truths in the Universe – that the world needs to be fixed, and that we ourselves, with the contributions that we have made, need to be forgiven, and restored, and reconciled.

Is there any hope, other than simply for somebody else to emerge who can distract us, interrupting temporarily the world’s “sad narrative”?

What about somebody who changes the narrative altogether?

500 years after Haggai’s plea that we “give careful thought” to these things, there came a man who assured us that he personally will put everything right, for any of us who trust in him.

His disciple John, who ran with Peter to the empty tomb, writes of him confidently – emphatically – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”