Lessons from a Funny Man

Today, the world was stunned by the sudden passing of Robin Williams.  A true original, his career was as unique as he.  From stand-up comedian to TV star to Academy-Award winning movie star to voice-over talent, his career spanned decades – and generations – creating timeless characters that made us laugh, made us cry, made us laugh until we cried, made us connect with our inner child, and above all made us think.  Because hidden inside his zany, crazy, manic humorous schtick, there was truth.  There was love overcoming hatred; there was beauty amid devastation; there was joy amid sorrow; there was triumph amid loss; there was a search for meaning, for purpose amid chaos and confusion.

Over the next several months, we’re going to hear celebrity after celebrity, person after person sharing stories and honoring “a great man.”  I never had the opportunity to know him personally, so I can’t speak to his greatness as a human being.  But I do know the characters he created, their enduring personalities, and the lessons I learned from them.  Lessons that provide great insight into this journey of life.  I’m sure many of us could share our own, but these are the ones that have stuck with me.

Good_Morning,_Vietnam1)  I was almost killed. A truck’s bumper was this far from my nose. My whole life passed before my eyes… and it wasn’t even interesting to me..  (Edward Garlick to  Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam)

Don’t wait until you are almost dead to start living.  Despite his foul mouth and irrepressibly reckless and rebellious personality, Adrian Cronauer was someone who did more than merely exist, more than merely survive.  He lived.  He lived in the moment.  He breathed in the sights and sounds and smells of the people and places around him.  Crawling out of the cage of the routine, the ordinary, Cronauer sought out experiences, chased opportunities, and engaged with people.  He made life interesting for himself and for all those around him.  Though his choices were ultimately regrettable, no one who lived alongside Adrian Cronauer ever forgot him.  No one who lived alongside Adrian Cronauer was ever the same.


2)  I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.  (As John Keating in Dead Poets’ Society)

There are many well-loved and significant quotes from this movie.  But this one, to me, embodies much of what John Keating was attempting to teach his students.  Whether it’s a complex algebraic equation, relational struggles, or existential philosophical ponderings, taking a step out of our self-made boxes to view a situation – or a person – from a fresh and new perspective can provide the answers we so desperately seek.  Such an endeavor takes time, however.  Time spent listening – without necessarily always working to formulate a response.  Time spent hearing – not just with our ears but with our hearts.  Time spent thinking, deeply and deliberately, allowing our emotions and intellect the opportunity to interact, giving some creative space to our cranial synapses.  Time spent feeling, with our whole being, the pain and struggles – and yes, the joy and triumph – of another.  And that in and of itself – that gift of time – is the step we take onto the desk.


3)  You told him I was a kind man. How kind is it to give life, only to take it away? (As Dr. Malcolm Sayer in Awakenings)

Yes, Robin Williams made us laugh, but he also made us think.  In so doing, he revealed a depth of character that starkly contrasted his exuberant, hyperactive comedic style.  Tough questions help define who we are, what we believe, and where we belong.  And while I can’t agree with all his conclusions, I am grateful for the opportunity to consider the what if’s and if only’s and why’s and how’s that make me thirst for understanding and hunger for knowledge.


4)  It’s so fast Peter. It’s a few years, and it’s over. And you are not being careful. And you are missing it.  (Moira Banning to Peter Banning in Hook)

I saw this movie well before I had children.  Heck, I saw this movie before Matt and I were married, or even engaged.  And I’m so glad I did.  That beautiful warning has been my constant earworm throughout my parenting journey.  Be careful.  Don’t miss it.  Even in the worst moments.  Even in the toughest moments.  Especially in the worst moments.  Especially in the toughest moments.  These are the moments that my children will come back to, some day, when they’re middle-aged with children of their own.  These are the moments my children will appreciate, some day, when they are facing the struggles of adulthood.  These are the moments I will treasure, some day, when the house is quiet and the toys are gone and the children are children no longer.  These are the moments that will bond us – forever – as parent and child.  These are the moments that will seal our connection as family.


5) I admire that honesty, Natalie, that’s a noble quality. Never lose that, because it often disappears with age, or entering politics. (as Mrs. Doubtfire in Mrs. Doubtfire)

Forget the irony of this statement, made by a man who is living a lie every single day in a noble attempt to reclaim his children and his marriage.  Instead, look past the wry humor.  Wipe that smirk off your face and discover the truth of this statement.  Because it’s right there in plain sight.  Whether it be office politics, board room politics, powder room politics, or actual politics, we clothe ourselves, much like Mrs. Doubtfire, in lies every day.  Lies about who we really are and what we believe.  Lies of half-truths and intentional omissions.  Lies that help us look better, feel better, seem better.  Instead of hanging on to that noble quality, living lives of integrity and truthfulness, we buy into the mentality that our reality is somehow lacking.  Unfortunately, just like Mrs. Doubtfire, those lies put us in jeopardy of losing the very things we are attempting to save.  Honesty is not only a noble quality, it’s the best policy…and our best chance at redemption.


6)  You don’t think that every day I wake up and wish I could give it back? That I would give it back in a second if I could have one more day with him? But I can’t, and that’s my life and I deal with it. (Skylar to Will in Good Will Hunting)

You know what’s not fair?  When this movie comes out shortly after the death of your own father, and then this line comes along.  A statement that echoes the cry of your own anguished heart so deeply that it splits you wide open, leaving you raw and ragged, aching and raging and pleading and wishing for that “one more day.”

And that’s all I have to say about that.

patch adams

7)  Death is not the enemy gentlemen. If we’re going to fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all, indifference. (as Patch Adams in Patch Adams)

And we’ve come full circle.  From living in the moment, to sucking all the marrow out of life, our existence here on this planet is supposed to be about more than mere survival.  We were created to be relational beings, to not only care about each other but to care for each other.  To connect with other human beings in meaningful ways.  To be a part of a broader community than just our own thoughts.  To feel with another their joy, their sorrow, their worry, their cares.  To share in the good times and the bad.  To walk alongside them in this journey we call life.  To cultivate a passion for something – ridding the world of injustice, creating something of beauty, discovering a cure for what ails us, or easing the pain of another – and losing yourself within it.  To embrace the rhythm of leaning on another, and in turn being the one leaned upon.  If laughter is the best medicine, then taking the risk to care is the spoon on which it is delivered.

As we bid a fond farewell to a beloved icon, we know that his legacy will live on.  The lessons he provided will continue to make us laugh, both at ourselves and at others; make us cry; make us laugh until we cry; make us connect with our inner child; make us think.   But I hope his legacy will do more than that.  I hope it will spur us to reach out to others a little harder, to let other people know how much they mean to us, to take a moment to offer a word of encouragement or an act of kindness.  And maybe, just maybe, to carpe diem – sieze the day – just a little more vigorously.

O Captain, my captain.  Thank you for sharing your gift with us.  You will not be forgotten.