Thursday, 21 August 2014

Robin Williams and Atonement

I've purposely held off posting about Robin Williams until the tidal wave of pro forma anguish washed past and left us in a place of calm. I'll give the media this: this time the coverage wasn't schlocky and over-the-top. Which is good, because the man deserves better.

But given the way he went, and the fact that August has somehow become Suicide Month here at Rusty Ring, I've got stuff to say.

First off, Robin Williams was a crucial figure to my generation. I haven't seen this mentioned anywhere – not surprising, given that those of us who followed the Baby Boomers have always been studiously ignored. But Robin Williams was, to some extent, our John Lennon. The fact that he was apolitical suited us perfectly; so were we. His lightning genius was dazzling, his sword scalpel-sharp, though he never seemed to over-use it. He took down the officious and precious, but never harped or dwelled. In nearly every photograph a childlike gentleness glows in his eyes. He wasn't angry; he was self-mocking. In him we saw perhaps not ourselves, but what we wished we could be. And on a personal note, as a kid of Scottish descent growing up in the States, I'll be eternally grateful to him for finally convincing the Yanks that Robin IS TOO a boys' name. (Haven't been hassled about that since Mork.)

None of which I realised until he was gone. Sic transit gloria mindfulness practice.

With his passing, my man Robin also brought depression to international attention, resulting in myriad thoughtful, helpful articles about the relationship between creativity, damage, and loneliness. Last week my 2011 review of The Zen Path Through Depression trended worldwide, attracting hundreds of hits. So people are interested in the topic, and with luck some who need counsel are seeking it.

But one thing I haven't seen is any discussion of the collective responsibility for the condition and its consequences. Some time ago I read a study in which researchers assembled a group of depression patients and another of random others. Researchers gave each individual a series of open-ended true stories and asked them to predict the outcome. The depressed subjects consistently augured more accurately than those in the control group.

Get it? Another word for depression is insight. Often, depressed people suffer in part from the misfortune of not being as mentally incapacitated by denial as their cohorts. The implication is clear: at least some of depression isn't sickness at all; it's a tragic lack of sickness, in a world gone barking mad.

Last year I uploaded a piece partly addressing the issue of how to deal with such unfashionable insight, should you be so afflicted; suffice it to say that killing yourself because everyone else is crazy is unskilful, both for yourself and the world. But like Thich Nhat Hanh says: "Those who think they are not responsible are the most responsible." Therefore, today I'm talking especially to the non-depressed majority.

What can you do to reduce the suicide rate?

The standard Zen response is to be mindful of the seeds of violence in yourself and deny them water. Some of the best instruction in this highly effective practice is found in Claude Anshin Thomas's autobiography At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace. In the meantime, here's a short list of possible first steps:

  • If you belong to a church or other religious organisation that identifies any group of fellow mortals ("Satanists"; atheists; gays; intellectuals; competing religions) as individuals who must be "stopped"; converted by physical or social violence; or liquidated; leave it. 
  • If you belong to a political party or movement that ascribes the problems we face to some superficially-defined group of people (immigrants; gays; rich or poor people; criminals; another race; proponents of a political or economic theory; another nation); leave it. 
  • Boycott anger-tainment – shock jocks, call-in shows, intentionally biased networks, sensationalistic books and movies. Anything that's heavy on analysis and light on facts. Don't forget the red tops, too. The constant public shaming of Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse (who apparently still isn't dead enough), or whatever other none-of-your-business train-wreck is selling at the moment, dehumanises us more than you think.
  • Too ambitious? Ok, just declare peace on somebody. Your choice. Choose one group that annoys the crap out of you and say, "From now on, you have my permission to be or do that." Slow drivers? Fast drivers? Loud children? People who use bad grammar? Obscenities? Residents of big garish houses? Those who dump their shopping trolleys in the car park for someone else to round up? (Ooo, that's mine!) 

Note that none of these are solutions to any problem, suicide least of all; rather they're a way to begin clearing the ground so solutions can develop. Maybe now that those self-centred bastards who strew their carts all over the place are no longer prompting a battle response, I will see the cause and effect behind their actions and perceive an end to it. Worst case scenario: I'll stop squandering my finite human energies on unproductive suffering. (Starting with my own.)

Once you start, it becomes addictive, this business of reason, acceptance, and forgiveness.

So go ahead, brothers and sisters: take that first step. See how it goes.

Until next time, honoured reader: Nanu-nanu.

(Still of Robin being human from the Bill Forsythe film of that title.)
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