De Profundis

IMG_1591In a grocery store last week a friend pointed out how many magazines had pictures of Robin Williams on the cover. Although his suicide two months ago was tragic, I wonder about the message we send to young people (and maybe some older ones as well) about this fixation. As we probe, attempting to understand the sad clown (and they generally all are), are we inadvertently telling our kids that suicide will make you an icon? We often hear accusations that extremist Muslims “brainwash” their youth into thinking that a righteous suicide will lead to glory. Perhaps the glory we perceive is somewhat different here in the post-Christian west than it is in the post-Christian east, yet I wonder what the essential difference really is. Why can’t we see that the cult of celebrity seldom ends well? The worship of the successful does not really grant them eternal life, as much as we may think otherwise.

Call me a curmudgeon—I probably deserve that—but when I overhear office mates in their cubicles or young people on campuses talking about stars I feel not a little like Rip van Winkle. Most of the names I do not recognize, and even showing me a picture doesn’t really help. Of course, I enjoy movies as much as the next dinosaur, but apart from the bargain bin and the occasional indulgence in Amazon Prime I really can’t much afford them anymore. I walk into a bookstore (where they can still be found) and the authors I want to read are not on the shelves. They are gone and all but forgotten. Many of them having left profound ideas in their wake. I guess I could pick up a magazine. Robin Williams looks happy on the cover.

I used to watch some late-night television before my job required waking between three and four a.m. One of the things I quickly noticed is that those stars our society worships had little of substance to say. That’s not to say all actors and media darlings are shallow, but I often wondered why their interviews always seemed to come down to the lowest common denominators. Have we lost our interest in probing beneath the surface? Isn’t there some profundity left to explore? Don’t get me wrong—I find Robin Williams’s death a tragedy. He may have been a deep and philosophical man. Who really knew him? Nevertheless, I wonder if perhaps, if we challenged ourselves a bit more, we might just consider the messages that our media broadcast. After all, they have to turn a profit. Do we really mean what our magazine covers seem to imply?

The Cost of Being Human

In last week’s Time magazine Joel Stein’s “The Awesome Column,” a humorous endnote for somber weekly news, spoke to me. Although Stein writes as light relief, when he addresses humanities education I have to sit up and take notice. Like being in class all over again. Although Stein is trying to be funny, I find the decline in the humanities to be no laughing matter. I don’t think Stein does either. As an uncle once said to a relative recovering from cancer—you might as well laugh about being bald, what else can you do? The humanities are so called because they are what makes us human. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Stein addresses this in the issue following that which commemorates Robin Williams. As I’ve written before, I don’t consider myself a Williams fan, but I can’t help but associate him with what I consider his best movie, Dead Poets Society. The humanities are what we live for.

I’m a little too nearsighted to claim to see the future clearly, but Stein makes the accurate assertion that our great ideas have tended to come from our humanities dreamers. Presidents and Popes, he notes, have not been drawn from the sciences, but from the arts. Herein, I suspect, many would suggest lies the problem. We are a schizophrenic society (with apologies to those who believe schizophrenic is a slur word). Who wants a warm puppy on your lap when you can have a warm laptop instead? Indeed, you can carry your computer under your arm, in your pocket or purse, or even around your wrist. Instant access to the internet and every other wired person all the time. Isn’t that what we really wanted? But then we come out of the movie theater complaining that the show was poorly written, if technologically flawless. We have just walked out of John Keating’s classroom, methinks.

Is this worth more than just money?

Is this worth more than just money?

“We live in a time,” Stein opines, “when smart people want to discuss only politics, technology, and economics.” Truth be told, the deeper you look behind any of these topics the more boring they become. Politics? Everyone wants to rule everyone else, what’s new there? Technology? Electrons dance better in some substrates, and if we can only get this confusing formula right… Economics? I want what you have, so why don’t we trade? How banal! Anyone who’s ever lost him or herself in a novel, a movie, or a song (even, dare I say, a prayer?) knows that transcendence trumps technology every time. As the weather begins its long decline into a bleak and icy winter, I’ll be sitting here with my laptop on my lap, but I can guarantee that this is one place where I can fully agree with the departed Charles Schultz. Happiness would actually be a warm puppy.

A Run-By Fruiting

Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Common

Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Common

I’ve never been enticed by the cult of celebrity. Becoming famous is frequently a matter of being in the right place at the right time to get noticed. Interviews with stars inevitably come across as lacking in substance. Some of the funniest people I’ve known have worked in camera shops, administrative offices, and IT departments. Still, the suicide of Robin Williams a week ago has impacted a wide swath of the nation. We hate to see a funny man die. It is such a truism as to be trite that those who are clowns often host inner demons. Laughter, Reader’s Digest proclaims monthly, is the best medicine. Who better to heal than those who know what it’s like to have been wounded? Yet we want the funny to keep on making us laugh until we move on to the next diversion.

For this past week I’ve been pondering how one man’s tragic death has jolted a nation into a reflective moment of silence. I can’t say I was Robin Williams’ biggest fan, but I’d seen a number of his movies, and I was devoted to Mork and Mindy growing up (aliens have a way of getting prime-time exposure that has never really been explained). I thought he was good at what he did. He was famous and had money, but it wasn’t enough to buy off the demons. Suicides hit me hard since I’ve known a few and have struggled with depression myself. There are times, truth be told, when no direction is up. It is at those times, however, that others tend to ignore you, lest you bring them down. People like to laugh.

There is something profoundly religious about the idea of a wounded healer. Anthropologists as well as theologians have noticed it. They need have only looked as far as the Bible to find examples. Yet the Christian tradition treats suicide as a great sin against God and the plan is that we all live to die either at the hands of nature or of someone else, so the guilt doesn’t cling to us. Death always leads to a remorse that entails such guilt. And yet it is inevitable. As a nation we are used to seeing comedians overdose or live reckless lives that end tragically. Deliberate action, however, feels the most horrendous of all. We’ll ask “why?” for a while, and we’ll make tributes and tearful speeches. And meanwhile some of the funniest people we can claim will be sweeping our floors or asking “would you like fries with that?”