I thought a great deal about this statement yesterday, as I digested the horrible, tragic news of actor Robin Williams’ death. He was not only a comic legend but was a dramatic actor as well and touched the lives of so many through his ability to make us laugh. He also showed a willingness to be real, raw and truthful about his problems. He used humor as a way to help us feel comfortable as he shared his demons and the struggles he lived with on a day to day basis. One of the quotes I heard today came from an interview with Charlie Rose. In speaking about his most recent stay at a rehab hospital, he said, ” I picked one in Napa Valley, you know, just to keep my options open.” That seemed to be his biggest joy: making other people laugh.
The statement “there but for the grace of God go I” is something I took as a religious statement but I really didn’t know the history. I looked it up on Wikipedia today and the passage considers it a proverb. It goes on to explain the meaning as:
a recognition that others’ misfortune could be one’s own, if it weren’t for the blessing/kindness/luck bestowed by fate or the Divine.
I often think of that when I pass a homeless person on the street looking for money. Sometimes you read the stories of homeless people and find that they’re not much different than you or I, but luck and fate worked against them and now, they find themselves in a dark place. Often a homeless person might be someone who simply lost their job, lost their medical benefits and now, without their medication they find themselves spiraling out of control. In the case of Robin Williams, no one will ever really know what was going through his mind, although his wife and children may know more than anyone else the real pain he was in during the past few days. We can turn to judgment, thinking he had so much to live for; we can turn to anger, thinking how selfish it was for him to take his own life; we can turn to frustration, thinking of all the many others that are in pain too, perhaps others that are not as much in the public eye as he was, with the resources he had.
All of those reactions are understandable. But they take us away from our compassionate self into one that is trying to be “right,” trying to judge others. What we can use these awful, tragic events for is to remind us that we are here, we are alive, and there but for the grace of God, go I. That could be us, standing in the street asking for change. That could be us, on our knees, sobbing and hoping for the light of inner wisdom to shine into our soul and give us a reason to live. But for the grace of God, we have been lucky and fortunate enough that it is not. Not now at least and maybe not ever. But who knows?
I like to watch the show “Last Comic Standing” on NBC. It follows comics that have been selected from hundreds of candidates as they work their way up through a series of performances. They are judged by well known, successful comedians who eventually pick the winner. I love watching it because I find the path of a comedian and the recipe for success is not all that different from the path of a yoga teacher. Just as there are hundreds of comedians out there trying to make it, so there are yoga teachers. On the show, the comedians that make it into the finals often talk about how they’ve gone without so much for so long, all in the name of their passion for making people laugh. The judges always love the comedians that are willing to be authentic and real in their comedy, daring to really share who they are, even if it means they’re sharing painful stories about their life. In that sharing of something so painful, they risk everything and in taking that risk, we connect to the humanity in it and can’t help but love them.
This is the essence of yoga teaching as well. That willingness to share of yourself, authentically and without apologies, and when it comes up, be willing to be real and raw as well. In these moments when teachers have done this in classes where I’ve been, it’s a “moment.” You feel the connection, you feel any tension in the room just dissolve and in that moment, you develop an admiration for the person just for sharing truthfully of themselves.
I saw a recent blog post where a woman shared some recent Instagram pictures but then shared the “real” picture in terms of what was really happening in her life at the time. We live in a world where image is everything and we can be quick to judge people when their cracks show. We can often make assumptions about how people got what they have, or are where they are but just as in the case of Robin Williams, “there but for the grace of God go I.” We can never really know the truth about how anyone got what they have or where they are, we can only acknowledge that perhaps it is a mixture of fate and good fortune, as well as opportunity and hard, hard work. To obsess about any of that is a waste of time.
One of the comedians on “Last Comic Standing” goes by the name Rod Man. He was taking a rare moment to speak from the heart in a more serious way in one of the interviews they do on the show. He was talking about how much he wants to win the competition and how easy it is to be distracted by everyone else’s success around him (he’s made it into the top 4). But he said his focus is to “stay in his own lane.” Truer words have not been spoken. Staying in your own lane, being authentic and worrying less about what everyone else is doing is one way to move through this world with the best shot of keeping your wits about you.
I will always be inspired by Robin Williams and his willingness to be so truthful and authentic. I will watch his movies and laugh and allow myself to be both sad and happy at the same time. The paradox is painful to acknowledge but in pain there is also truth and in truth there is freedom.
Thank you, Robin, for connecting us to our humanity. You will never be forgotten.