When I read that Robin Williams had died of suicide, a thought went through my mind that is probably shared by many.
“I had no idea”.
Perhaps at some point I’d fleetingly read that Williams was in rehab from substance abuse, but I had no idea that his addictions were an attempt to fight off depression.
I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest people-reader, and 99% of what I saw of Williams was a performance of some kind. But I have trouble connecting the manic, happy-at-all-the-wrong-times boom of “Aladdin”‘s Genie to a depressed soul. The man’s calling was to cheer people up. He was so gifted at it. He had so much admiration from people. It was hard to guess what was under the surface the whole time, that the great well of humor and compassion from which he enriched others belied a different internal reality. I so wish I’d known him; I wish I’d had a chance to build him up.
It’s a reminder to me that we must never assume.
Ian McLaren said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (No, the quote wasn’t from Plato.) It didn’t take me long as a teacher and youth worker to learn that appearances mean nothing. Society is a gallery of facades. A smile can hide immense pain. Good grades, intelligence, and potential can spring from a destructive home. That person sitting alone may not, in fact, want to be alone at all. Maybe s/he never learned how to ask for companionship, or how to keep it.
But there is hope. Oh, so much hope.
These struggles are the very things Jesus went after in his ministry. Isaiah 61:1 says he came to “bind up the brokenhearted”. He forgave sins, healed the blind, touched lepers with his hands, cleansed the unclean woman with the issue of blood, lodged with the ostracized Zaccheus. He reached people whom others didn’t see, or didn’t believe they could help. He was so compassionate, so earthy, so giving.
Instead of using great and wondrous signs to confirm his identity (which he certainly could have), he identified himself by loving people. He walked right into their needs and brokenness. And then, he died and rose again to provide our greatest need – eternal life. Restored bodies and minds.
And the servant is not greater than his master.
Everything Christ did, he commanded his followers to do. Just as we are God’s hands and feet to the nations unreached by the gospel, we are an instrument of God in keeping each other afloat. The New Testament is chockablock with hints that he prefers to work largely through us, his church. And in Christ, we are more than able.
It starts with never assuming that people are hunky dory. Get into people’s lives; show a steady, sincere interest. Some of those who are most in need are the ones least able to address their need. Loving on people can be unrewarding. We fear that we’ll get pulled in and drowned. But if we’re going to be serious about this “loving people” business, we must allow for the fact that people are weird. (You are, too.) The key, of course, is remembering that we’re not in it for reward. That’s the point of love. It gives without thought of reward. The great thing about love is that you needn’t wait to feel it. You just do it!
I can’t speak to Robin Williams’ spiritually, but I still learned two great things from his life and death. One, be a giver. In the scramble to spread and defend our faith, let’s never forget to be a source of joy. Two, we must never assume. Instead, we must pursue.
Because wherever we go, we bring Jesus with us. When we go into people, we bring Jesus to them. That is seriously good news.