In reflecting on Robin Williams’s death, a conversation I had with a friend came to mind from a couple of weeks ago.
I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine at work, when he mentioned that he didn’t think it would be a bad thing, necessarily, if he died at 42, or some other young age. He didn’t have any plans to hasten the process, but he wouldn’t be necessarily unhappy if that was what ended up happening.
This made me pause and immediately ask him why. He replied with the following:
1) because 42 is the meaning of life.
2) because a hadith (my friend is Muslim) states that 40 is the prime of life for a man,
3) and an almost-laughably-simple question as an answer:
“Aren’t you tired of all of this yet?”
In a way, I can’t tell him he’s completely off-base. Between all of the international conflicts, humanitarian crises, domestic issues, corrupt corporations, the destruction of our environment, and increasingly polarized social matrices, living in the world today as an engaged citizen is incredibly disheartening. Personally, every time I read the news, I want to build a rocket and go to outer space. And if I’m tired of all this in my early 20’s, how am I going to feel when I’m 30? or 40?
Obviously, there are some huge differences between my friend’s outlook on the world and Robin Williams’s death, and it is not my intention to compare the two in any way. Death, in suicide, is usually never the end in and of itself, in this way; it is merely the means to stop suffering. My friend, on the other hand, has no active desire to utilize death as any means or end. He simply has come to the conclusion that perhaps death at a young age might not be such a bad thing, given the state of world and our place in it.
For me, that’s what all this is about–hope. Hope is way more complicated than most folks make it out to be. For example, I can’t hope that my teacup is going to magically refill itself as I finish writing this–I know that that isn’t going to happen, as tea doesn’t magically brew itself and appear out of thin air. However, in our society, the notion of “hope” seems to have taken on this simplistic and reductive connotation to it, rendering it laughable and immature. Nothing could be further from the truth. Granted, I’m an early-twenty-something Nerdfighter inhabiting a very privileged existence, which means that my understanding is not the same understanding that anyone else will have, and definitely needs to be critically questioned and checked. But, for me, hope cannot happen without some sort of evidence.
How did I come to that conclusion? Good question! I got it from the dictionary, in which it states that wanting something to be true is only part of the concept. In the definition of hope, there must be some sort of confidence or thought process involved that allows the hoper to think that it will happen. This is absolutely key. Without providing some sort of evidence that something is going to happen, there is no hope.
So, the question is: how to provide this evidence? In this particular case, how are we supposed to communicate to folks like my friend and folks like Robin Williams that maybe the world is worth working with? I think there are probably many ways to do this, but the process that seems to make the most sense to me is to foster community.
Fostering community, much like hope, isn’t some hippie-dippy, kumbaya concept that dismisses critical thought; in fact, my understanding demands it. Like hope, creating connection with others is a concept that seems to be undermined as simplistic and immature, and therefore unworthy of consideration. As I have outlined in an earlier post, the human community is what has allowed our species to survive this long. We can’t keep growing and changing if we don’t work with one another. Like the caveman sharing fire with the rest of his cave-siblings, our continued survival depends on sharing–our resources, our innovations, our space, our scrap of history.
Sharing things to create community in this way, is really hard. In this corner of the universe, where lifestyles and goals seem to be increasingly individualistic and isolating, reaching out to one person is as political and radical an act as can be imagined. I’m not saying that those who ascribe to those goals are wrong, even–take a look at the news, and there is more than enough reasons to want to shy away from everything . However, that doesn’t resolve anything, least of all anything that we’ve been discussing here.
To illustrate this, I return to the man who explained this to us in the first place: Robin Williams. The first movie I ever saw with Robin Williams was Aladdin, where he provided the voice of the Genie. I remember being absolutely mesmerized by the character–while I was only a toddler, I recognized that there was something very distinctive about this cartoon (besides the obvious fact that he was, in fact, a Genie). In his show-stopping number, the Genie croons “You ain’t never had a friend like me!” to Aladdin, showcasing the breadth and depth of his magical skill and flamboyant personality. Throughout the movie, though, it isn’t the Genie’s magic that proves to be his defining characteristic: it is the way in which he sticks with and supports Aladdin through his various schemes and dreams, ultimately regardless of any benefit to himself. (For those who would argue that the Genie’s motivation was to be set free, I would remind them that the Genie still helped Aladdin defeat Jafar after Aladdin had told him that he couldn’t set him free.) By trusting Aladdin in the final battle, by virtue of their friendship, Aladdin was able to save everyone and create a happy ending for all–including freedom for the Genie.
What better legacy for us to live up to than to be Genies for one another? What better way to honor Robin Williams’s memory? And what a way to reaffirm each other of our own worth and purpose–to constantly remind each other that “You ain’t never had a friend like me.” and vice versa. For my part, I simply cannot hope for a better ultimate concern: to live on for and with others.
Godspeed, sir. Thank you for challenging us to make our lives extraordinary.