001: On Robin Williams and the healing power of relationships

Like most people, I was really winded this week by the news of Robin Williams’ suicide.  On top of everything, from the insanity in the Middle East, unarmed kids being shot -more kids being shot!- and Ebola in Africa, to then have Robin Williams kill himself…  Robin was the embodiment of zaniness and joy.  To think that behind it all he had this debilitating depression that led him to finally take his life…it just…  Man, that was a tough one.  

In the midst of all of this, however, I have also been very touched by the out-pouring of gratitude for Robin and sympathy for his family that people have been expressing online and in the media.  For me, it really brought home the fragility of us all and how, even when we think we know someone, we often really don’t. (Not that I ever knew Robin Williams.)  It also brought home the power and saving grace of relationship.  

Sorry this first blog is as heavy as it is, but the week’s events just got to me.  They also reminded me of a story that I think is quite beautiful and worth sharing.  

Years ago, on the first day of acting school, the students went around the room, introduced ourselves and said a little bit about who we were.  There were 30 of us in the group.  One guy was a professional opera singer and what had brought him to acting school, he said, was that his wife had recently been in a car accident and killed.  They had just been married.  The guy’s life had fallen apart and, basically, he had enrolled in acting school as a way to crawl himself back among the living.

The guy told us this story and then never said another word about it.  

That first year of school went by and was one of the most insane, powerful and wonderful experiences I have ever had.  We were there 5 days a week from 8 in the morning to 6 O’clock at night; later if we had a rehearsal.  We were in acting class together, voice, movement, speech.  I mean, we were just in it together.  Acting class was insane.  It was emotional.  We did scenes, exercises and improvs.  And we all got to know each other really well.  In fact, I have never since been part of something that was that intense in such a crazy, fun way.  

It was now the end of the school year and the guy brings in an exercise.  He stood in the middle of the room holding sheet music and started to sing.  Now, typically, when you do an exercise, you build a whole environment.  We had beds and tables and desks, a sink if you wanted to make a kitchen.  But this guy had nothing.  So, a couple of minutes in, my teacher stops him and says, you know, what are you doing?  What’s your circumstance?  

The guy had this very deep voice and was a very held in kind of person. “It’s my wife’s birthday,” he said.  “This is her favorite piece of music and I am singing it at her graveside.”
My teacher dropped his head and became very emotional.  It was almost like he had been waiting for this.  “Okay,” he said.  “You know the words to this song?”  The guy said he did, so my teacher told him to put the music down.  He did.  And then my teacher said, “Now, get on your knees.”

The guy said, “What?”
“Kneel down.  Kneel at your wife’s grave.”   
The guy got down on his knees.  
“Now, put your hands together in prayer.”  The guy did, and then my teacher said, “Now sing.  You’re kneeling at her graveside.  Sing to your wife.”   

The guy turned red and then purple.  I swear I thought he was going to pass out.  He was fighting.  You could see it.  This thing came up inside him like a volcano and he was doing everything in his power to hold it down.  And then, finally, he took this breath.  I realized in that moment that I had never seen the guy breathe!  It was like the first time.  He-took-a-breath!  And then, he sang.  He SAAAANG!  

He sang an aria.  It was like nothing I had ever heard or seen.  It was so beautiful and powerful and terrifying.  There was so much longing in it and heartache, so much sorrow and anger.  It all came pouring, POURING out of this guy and over all of us.  

When it was over, we were all shattered.  We were all just sobbing.  We had known the guy’s story and now we were in it with him.  And it wasn’t just his sorrow anymore, you know?  When you see a performance like that, or you witness someone else’s grief, the feeling you have in response is yours.  I may not have known loss on the scale this guy did, but I knew loss.  That’s the beauty of art.  Through this guy’s music he brought us all to that place in ourselves.  

At the end of the song, my teacher, who was still really crying said,  “I’m sorry.  But that’s why you’re here.  You came to acting school to do that.”

The guy nodded.  He understood.  And it was true.  The guy had no intention to be an actor.  But he had needed to go someplace to excise this thing inside of him that he had nowhere else to go with.    

Looking back on that event, now that I am older and…whatever, I have been asking, what happened?  Why was that guy able to do what he did?  

Well, he had come to school a stranger to us all.  He told us his story and then away it went.  But in that year, in those subsequent months of every single day being together with us and doing this very intense, emotional and personal work, we had all onded.  In a very deep and specific way, we had become a kind of family.  

No one told the guy to do that exercise that day.  No one had said, do something involving your wife.  No, the exercise was his idea.  He created it.  So, on some level, it’s like like he was ready to go where he did.  My teacher, by giving him the direction to put the music down and get on his knees, helped him physicalize his intention and connect with the feelings that were already there.   

More than anything, I think what allowed the guy to finally go where he did was because of that year of having been in relationship with us all.  Through that, his psyche, on some deep level, knew that he was in a safe place where he could do this very “unsafe” thing he needed to do.  

When someone suffers a loss of that proportion (and God forbid anyone ever does) there often isn’t anywhere to go with it.  You know?  Where was this guy supposed to go with what he had been through?  How was he supposed to get on with his life?  He couldn’t just go to a coffee shop like he used to or sing with his old opera company.  That had all been shattered.  Until he was able to go inside himself, connect with his feelings and excise them, he couldn’t get on with his life.  

Now, once he touched that level of feeling it didn’t mean the work was over.  To sing like that and release all of that emotion was a huge step that had come after a lot of groundwork had been laid.  But the guy still needed to metabolize the experience.  He still needed to make sense of it.  No matter what work he did or didn’t do thereafter, he was never going to be able to go back and be who he had been when he married his wife.  Nor was he ever going to be able to go forward in life as someone who hadn’t suffered an unspeakable loss.  The guy was going to carry that wound with him forever.  It’s like people who lose a child.  You don’t ever get over something like that, you just learn to go on.  If, however, you can allow someone or a group, a community of people, to help carry the experience while you work to assimilate it and redefine who you will be going forward, it can really help.

I just wanted to share this story because I thought it was touching and relevant.  As people continue to pour themselves out on the internet, what I see is that we are all trying to reach for each other.  

None of us can believe what’s going on in the world.  And none of us can believe that Robin Williams isn’t with us anymore.  And all we have to contain that heartache and help us carry it is each other.  

I promise my next blog will be funny.  Or something!  

Art, Psychology & Leadership