On Robin Williams, Depression and Being a Good Friend

robinwilliams

No matter how certain you are, you never really know what another person is going through. You never really know what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. You never really know what is going on in another person’s life.

Yesterday, the world learned that comedian and actor Robin Williams had taken his own life, and had been battling severe depression for years. And the inevitable questions followed… how could someone who made so many people happy, be so sad that he finally decided to take his own life? How could someone who seemingly had it all — money, fame, talent — be so despondent that he made the choice to kill himself?

Those are the obvious kinds of questions to ask, but they are the wrong ones to ask. Because no matter what another person’s life appears to be to you, we never really know what is going on. “Money, fame, and talent don’t buy happiness,” the cliche goes. But it is true. Just because someone’s life looks perfect to you doesn’t mean it feels perfect to them.

Depression is a scary thing. I’ve been there. Many people have, and deal with it every day. When you are clinically depressed, no matter how good your life might seem to others, it just doesn’t feel good to you. You can’t get there. You can’t sleep. You can’t stop thinking or worrying about this or that. You just can’t shake it, no matter what. And worst of all, most of the time you decide you can’t talk about it or share it with others, because they will never understand, or you assume that the more you talk about it, the worse you will feel. It is a lonely and scary place to be.

This is a business blog, so I’ll make the leap to something “business relevant.”

Far too many of us spend time criticizing and judging other people. Commenting on other people’s lives is far too common, in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the gym. Everywhere. But the lesson we learned yesterday from Robin Williams’ suicide was that we never, ever know what is really going on inside a person. So don’t assume. Don’t judge. Don’t criticize.

You want to be a good colleague, a good teammate and a good friend? Accept people for what they are, and don’t create negative energy around unnecessary criticism and judgment. I’m not saying it is OK to accept sub-standard performance in the workplace. I’m simply saying be human, be understanding, and always give people the benefit of the doubt. If they are being a jerk one day at work, or seem to be in a bad mood, or are quiet and detached, don’t assume the worst about them. Don’t take leaps of judgment and assume something negative. There may be something going on with them that you don’t know, and will never know.

Instead, give them a smile, reach out a hand, say “hello.” Do something kind. No matter what the response is, it is the right thing to do.

I’ll miss Robin Williams. We all will. He made me laugh so hard, that many times I had tears rolling down my face. And yet, the clown was crying on the inside.

A sad day, indeed. And a day for reflection on how we can be more present and supportive for the people in our lives, at work and at home.

Have a great day.

Photo by Shameek used under the following license.

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11 Responses to On Robin Williams, Depression and Being a Good Friend

  1. Indeed it is a sad day. Robin Williams was a brilliant artist and a remarkably diverse actor. I don’t read the tabloids and had no knowledge of his personal demons. That, too is sad. You’ve brought up a good point here. “Accept people for what they are, and don’t create negative energy around unnecessary criticism and judgment. …be understanding, and always give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t take leaps of judgment and assume …” To everyone – it is the easiest thing in the world to accept people, don’t judge, don’t assume, and don’t be critical. It takes a lot more energy to find, criticize, and demoralize other people. Our emotional resources are limited. Why do we want to spend them spiraling through the negative cycle? It’s easier and more productive to let people be who they are, and make sure we are keeping ourselves on track.

    • Great comment, Jane. The older I get, the more frustrated I become when I hear people bashing others. It… just… gets… old…

      Thank you!

  2. Dean – I really enjoyed this post and found it very relevant. Not enough written or discussed in the business world about simply being kind to others. I believe it is the right thing to do but also firmly believe that it makes for better productivity and helps forge new relationships.

    Our mutual former mentor Mr. Guerin was a great role model for others in this area.

    • I think about Mr. Guerin all the time. I was never one of “his guys,” but he still had a huge impact on me. As you once said, “Bill Guerin is living proof that attitude and being positive is everything.”

      Hope you and the family are well.

  3. I wish people could be more understanding and try to be nice. Everyone is an individual. There is so many people I pass everyday that i smile and say hello too, that dont say anything at all and others who just say negative things to each other after you walk by. Really are we back in grade school? We are grown ups and as grown ups we need to set an example. It might not bother me but some people take it personal and it could ruin their day! You have to be positive and you have to share it with others and “spread the wealth”.

  4. thanks dean. like many, robin’s passing has caused me personal grief, but has also made me think about the broader picture. a large part of that picture is creating “safe havens” for people to talk about their emotions and feelings, this is particularly true for men. whether self-created or societal convention, men have a particularly difficult time dealing with their emotions. Friendship, as you rightly point out (and have demonstrated to me on many occasions!) is important to help people feel comfortable in dealing with their emotions and depression. Sadly, that is sometimes not enough.

    I’d like to draw attention to an organization called “Beyond Blue” (beyondblue.org) – their charter is specifically focused on helping men identify and deal with their depression. It’s been incredibly successful here, I wonder if there are similar organisations in the states? I don’t recall anything….

    By the way, I in no way mean to suggest that men have a monopoly on depression. In my experience, though, there are unique challenges in getting men to realise what they are dealing with and helping them once they have.

    Thanks again for the post, Dean.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Phil. I agree… there are just not a lot of outlets for men when it comes to dealing with depression. I don’t know of anything here like Beyond Blue.

      I agree it starts with friendship. And I agree that sometimes that is not enough. And I also believe your friendship back to me has been a steady presence in my life. I’m very grateful.

      Thanks for the comments. See you soon.

  5. I an impressed by these comments. After living enough years to be able to prove it, I can say with authority, you will never regret being kind.

  6. I bought some wire today at one of the large home improvement stores to hang a picture in my apartment. After asking one of the staff for help, the man out of the blue just asked me, “What do you do, think about living in the moment or dying in the moment?” Well honestly, his thick Jamaican accent and the randomness of his question, at first, I had no idea what he had just said. So, I asked him to repeat it (not once but twice), “Do you think about living in the moment or dying in the moment?” Now, I love how life can surprise you when you least expect it and once I understood what he said (remember, this was a thick Jamaican accent followed by the stereotypical “yeah man”) the first thing that came to mind was Robin William’s suicide. And, not wanting to miss a chance to look the part of an educated and wise man, told him, “living in the moment!” Of course he said, “yeah man!” He went on to explain that is what he told his friend who seemed to think about “dying in the moment.” Yes, in that instant so many things went through my mind from the oddity of the question to the relevance of that observation. We agreed that it was sad to think the life of Robin Williams could have been so low, the only conclusion he could find was to bring it to its end. And, how could no one around him see what he struggled with; mental illness is a complex sum of many parts and to this day, we cannot decide which school of thought is the panacea to all others. Anyway, his friend seemed to think about his life’s end and how this man spoke about him, gave me the impression it dominated how he lived. And, he and I seemed to agree that the end will come no matter what so maybe it best to just think about living.
    In the matter of Robin Williams, I refer to cognitive therapy where they talk a lot about being mindful in the moment, moving through an issue to a better place rather than focus on the cause; no one may ever know what really troubled Robin Williams. We all live and work with people around us; everyone has something to deal with. I think about an author, Max Erhmann who describes us as “children of the universe.” We all belong here, and should, teach that to our children. We still are at war somewhere. We ignore those we see in the street who may need our help; I beg to say, “If Robin Williams came up to you for help, wouldn’t you try to give it to him?” We don’t know our neighbors, understand the people we work with everyday and those we see in the news; too distant to really appreciate their plight.
    With all due respect, “rest in peace” to the poor souls who have suffered. Today, try and think about yourself as a better human being. Set a good example for others to hear and see. Tell someone you love them until you sell it, “you know what I mean.” And when it matters, be brave with yourself and know that it is OK to reach out and ask someone for help. sac

  7. The latest news is that Williams had been dealing with the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. My father-in-law has this and it is a devastating illness. This very well may have been the final straw in Williams ability to hang on.

  8. Someone said to me today that his choosing to hang himself was to hurt others! NOT TRUE1 Those who commit suicide are hurting far more. He didn’t know or have a better answer.

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