Robin Williams And The Sacred Duty Of Storytelling

August 15, 2014

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I was 12 when I first saw “Good Will Hunting.” My sister, who is eight years older than me, had a job at a local movie theater, which meant I had the opportunity to see as many R-rated movies as I wanted, for free. This often meant cinematic thrills of the violent and salacious variety that my mom probably wouldn’t have approved of me seeing. I enjoyed films like “L.A. Confidential” and “The Fifth Element,” which I recognize as being fantastic now, mainly for their nudity and bloodshed. 

However, “Good Will Hunting” was different. I went in expecting Robin Williams. Like, funny Robin Williams. Manic Genie from “Aladdin” Robin Williams. Magical, childlike Peter Pan from “Hook” or cross-dressing dad from “Mrs. Doubtfire” Robin Williams. The ADD, channeling-surfing-through-pop-culture, off-the-wall Robin Williams I grew up with. What I got, though, was something I hadn’t experienced before on my nascent journey into cinema. Something so bare, so raw and so human that it honestly confused me. I walked out of the theater deeply affected, but I didn’t really know how or why. I just knew that something had seeped out of his performance that I absorbed deeply. It was one of the first times I can remember feeling a work of art truly stir my soul.

I then, as any confused preteen might, dove headfirst into not just movies, but also Robin Williams as a whole. His other body of work. My sister was dating the theater manager as well, who was a cinephile and had hundreds of movies on VHS. He let me borrow Terry Gilliam’s “The Fisher King” and “Good Morning Vietnam.” Only then did I really start to understand the true power a performer had to affect his audience. To impart some universal human experience upon the viewer. To embody personal pain, suffering, tragedy, love, comedy or joy — and make it relatable to anyone. To tell a story.

I was as shocked as everyone else to hear Robin had passed away on Monday. Death is tragic no matter what, but knowing that a man who had filled the hearts of so many was left so utterly empty himself brought me to tears. I have nothing to add that hasn’t been said. I did not know the man personally, only the generosity he showed the world by performing in spite of, and because of, the demons he fought on a daily basis. I only knew his art and the stories he told.

This is why I tell my story of how his performance in “Good Will Hunting” affected me. It’s trivial and trite, but it somehow connects me to the universal, inexpressible human experience of tragedy. And throughout the past week we’ve seen this time and time again. No one knows how to express loss, to cope with a bright light being snuffed out far too early. You see those who knew Robin telling their own personal stories. Chris Gethard on the time he got to do improv with Robin. Josh Gad on meeting and becoming pen pals with his hero while performing on broadway. Norm Macdonald on the time Robin made him feel at ease before a performance. Terry Gilliam on watching Robin give every bit of his soul and drain all the life he had for a performance. And there are so, so, so many more.

But what does it matter? Why tell these stories? It’s because there is so much universal truth in personal, specific experiences. We may not be able to articulate the pain of loss but we can tell the stories of the ones we loved in a way that communicates all that needs to be communicated. If you read all of these personal accounts of brief run-ins with Robin or lifelong friendships, commonalities emerge. He was warm, gracious and absolutely selfless. His only care was making others happy. How he found solace in making others able to live through pain, even if he couldn’t do it himself.

Robin William’s highest calling was telling stories. He felt it so deeply that it turned into a fire that consumed him. He was like so many great artists who not only had a gift but felt duty-bound to share it with the world. That if they weren’t sharing their gifts, they weren’t just personally wasting them — they were actually making humanity worse on the whole. They would rather die than have their stories left untold. This goes for authors like David Foster Wallace or war photographers like Tim Hetherington, who indirectly and directly died for their stories.

I call this a sacred duty because so many view it as exactly that. Journalists on the front lines of wars abroad and wars at home, determined to tell the world the truth even if it puts themselves in harm’s way. Artists who give everything of themselves to create, even if it means poverty and sacrifice. Authors and writers, who tell stories to somehow imbue the world with an iota more of an understanding of the human condition than already existed. Filmmakers, documentarians, musicians, poets, photographers and more.

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man

We see it even in the tragic events that unfolded in Ferguson, Mo. the past few days. How does a community make sense of the utter tragedy of the killing on an unarmed black teenager? How do they channel that anger into a force for change? How do they document the events so that we as a people can sway the tide of history? They did this to have their voice heard. They took to Twitter to tell the story of what was going on in Ferguson when live news coverage was forced out. They knew it was important to communicate what was happening. To document it for all to see. To tell their story even if it meant putting themselves in imminent danger.

I think about this a lot — even before the incapacitating tragedy of this week. Why do I do what I do? What’s the point of movies and why am I drawn to them? Do our stories really matter? Every time I go out and enjoy the bombastic fun of “Guardians of the Galaxy” while Liberians are locked in their houses under threat of being consumed by the largest outbreak of Ebola in human history, I ask myself why. Am I being selfish? The only solace I can take is that art matters. Entertainment matters. And above all, more than anything, storytelling matters.

We, as humans, are nothing without our stories. The oral histories passed down from generations, documented in the annals of history, are what define us. Robin Williams knew this. He knew that the greatest gift he could bestow on the world during his short time on Earth, was to let them know that things will be okay. That laughing in spite of tragedy is what gets us through. That it’s “not our fault”. For that, I thank him. Just as I thank all of the other people, telling their stories. No matter what.