No Man is an Island

22 Aug

     We’re a couple weeks removed now from the awful news of the immensely talented Robin Williams taking his own life.  On this terrible day (and the days that followed), I found myself deeply affected by this news–I have always been hit hard by terrible news. It’s as if these kinds of things rest on me like a heavy wet blanket. Why on earth did he do it? How could he? Why would he? Questions like this never will be answered fully. The ability for a person to will his own demise is such a terrible freedom. I hate it. But cold and rational as I try my best to be, I hear myself thinking, “It’s just another person. 150,000 people die everyday. Tons of incredibly sad things happen and are happening. Don’t let this arouse the darkness.”

     But on that unfortunate Monday, I heard people that were equally affected by the news talking everywhere I went. Getting onto an elevator I overheard a man processing the news with someone on the other end of the phone. “It’s just so unbelievably sad,” he said. Social media seemed to explode with the news. So many were remembering how Robin had come into their life and brightened it. Folks chimed in from all over the world–people of all ages, races, backgrounds–with stories of how a movie of his or a bit in his standup touched them. But all of these things were largely unsaid until the tragedy. I loved “Hook” as a kid. I watched it probably 100 times. But I hadn’t thought much about Robin Williams in recent years. I saw the promo for his latest show but wasn’t inclined to watch it. Such was the experience of most of America (since the show was canceled after its 1st season). But now that he’s gone, we are finding out that he has touched almost everyone. Everyone is a fan. Everyone is mourning his absence. But why do we all collectively mourn one man like this?

     The day Robin Williams died (or perhaps it was the day after) I read a beautiful chapter from Frederick Buechner (has he ever written anything that’s not beautiful?) in his book “The Hungering Dark.” In it he quotes John Donne’s poem “No Man is an Island”:

“No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.”

     He paraphrased Donne’s poem in a beautiful line that made sense of everything I was feeling:

“Or to use another metaphor, humanity is like an enormous spider web, so that if you touch it anywhere, you set the whole thing trembling.”

     Why do we all come together with such relative ease to mourn the loss of someone we’ve never met and hadn’t really thought about in years? When something tragic enters the collective conscious of the whole world, we mourn that loss together. But not just something tragic–because we experience tragedy collectively every day. Many times there is a platform that won’t allow us to mourn certain kinds of tragedy. Our feelings about Israel won’t allow us to mourn deaths in Gaza. Our political stance on guns won’t allow us to mourn the deaths of folks killed by gun violence. But a beautiful soul that made us laugh until we cried–that manic 10,000mph-engine-of-fun that was Robin Williams–we can certainly mourn that loss. There was some darkness that he faced that became too much to bear. The light that we experienced in his performances hid a deep darkness that we weren’t aware of fully. The spider web of humanity trembles in the face of such tragedy. We recognize Robin Williams is no island. He is us. His loss makes us less as a result.

     We are at our most human when we mourn the loss of one of our own. Mostly though, I believe we have lost our ability to lament anything (and are far less human as a result). We’re so addicted to a man-made fluorescent brightness that we use to keep the dark away. Barbara Brown Taylor calls it “solar spirituality” in her wonderful new book “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” She reminds us of our need to learn how to step into the darkness. It is in the darkness that we encounter the Father that is not unaccustomed with grief. If it’s true that the truest picture we have of the Father is in Jesus, then it’s safe to assume that God mourns and suffers with us. So, mourn. Weep at the atrocities in the world. Drop your guard for a while. The news about Robin Williams came just two days after Ferguson police shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown–another soul created in the image of God. His life is worth mourning too. Don’t worry about blame. What does it matter if he stole something or was aggressive? He was an 18-year-old unarmed kid with the possibility of a full life ahead of him. Now he’s gone. ISIS is wreaking havoc in the Middle East. Israel and Palestine are bombing each other and dead children are collateral damage. Weep. Weep. Weep.

     Darkness doesn’t have the last word though. We have great hope in Jesus. John says in his first epistle “…the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (2:8). Like stars poking through the black night sky, the kingdom of heaven is already shining. The darkness is fading–far too slow it seems–and the light is already showing–although sometimes we have to squint to see it. Look into the darkness and mourn. But take heart. The story doesn’t end in darkness. Something wonderful has come and is coming. There will be a day where every sad thing becomes untrue (to paraphrase Tolkien). You’ll never do anything harder but more human than hope in the face of the darkness. 

"The Crazy Ones" Press Conference

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