I have never met Robin Williams.
Or Johnny Cash.
Or Michael Jackson
Or Roger Ebert.
Or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Brittany Murphy, Natasha Richardson, Whitney Houston…
And don’t even get me started on Patrick Swayze.
You probably haven’t met them either, and if you did, you weren’t friends. You didn’t see them regularly, know their quirks, their scent, their most-worn T-shirt, the things that we observe and mindlessly hold close about our own people.
But when it comes to people – our favorite far-off people – whose faces we see and voices we hear on the screen, we feel connected. And when we lose them, we mourn.
When Whitney Houston died in 2012, I remember having to tune out social media for a few days because of my anger at the reactions. As it happens with any celebrity death in our Facebook Age, we use these times as an opportunity to reminisce: our favorite song. our favorite movie. the thing that touched us, made us dance, made us cry. But some people use this as a time to point out how shallow we are for caring that an entertainer has died. Why don’t we post more pictures and thoughts of soldiers, of martyrs, of victims?
It’s a debate we can’t win. Death itself is too big for us to handle as one piece. We know that every day, people die senselessly, tragically, horribly. And if we acknowledged each one the way we do our own loved ones, our own heroes, or simply our own favorite entertainers, then all we would do is mourn.
I remember, quite honestly, observing that I cried more tears over the star of Dirty Dancing and the singer of “Walk the Line” than I did for some distant relatives. It made me feel guilty, and yet…? We cannot measure the depth of our human experience by isolated emotions. I loved that second cousin who died unexpectedly when I was 17, and I will always, always miss those older relatives that were gone before we got to hear all of their stories and learn all of their recipes. But I can’t help it that something in the emotive performances of Patrick Swayze and many things in the life and writings of Johnny Cash captivated me in a personal way.
And without their presence, the world is emptier. That is what happens when we lose artists, when we lose people who happen to make a more public mark than the rest of us.
It doesn’t make them bad for being celebrities, just like it doesn’t make them immune from cancer, old age, addiction, depression. It doesn’t make us shallow for loving them from afar and mourning them for real.
It’s just part of our human experience.
I am not going to spend Memorial Day acknowledging Robin Williams, nor will I tie a yellow ribbon, make a donation in his name, or think of him every day. Those are places we hold close for our soldiers, for our martyrs.
But this week, I will remember how he made me laugh in countless movies… how he was the teacher I wanted to have and wanted to be in Dead Poet’s Society… how Mrs. Doubtfire stands the test of time… the amazing way he made a cartoon genie come to life and made me rewind “You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me” over and over… how I didn’t ever see Good Morning Vietnam or get Jumanji or like Mork & Mindy, but how much my kids love that eccentric Hook.
I will also pray for his family. He was a real person… a husband, a dad, a friend.
I guess it’s a theme for me this week. Let’s edit less. Let’s feel. Let’s reach out. Let’s be the full-hearted, big-hearted, loving creatures God created us to be.
Let’s remember Robin Williams with a smile and a tear.