Lessons from the Dead on the Art of Living and the Emptiness of Celebrity

Robin Williams Alone and Gone


In my last post, I wrote about my dearly departed dad and his quest (some would say undying faith) in the “spiritual” realm and its universal truths that was, perhaps, largely elusive during his incarnate life but now largely answerable in death. Unfortunately, once you cross death’s door and enter the great beyond, you’re access to the physically living is barred save a haunting here and there. And yet, strange at it may seem, the dead continue to whisper to us from beyond the grave through fleeting glimpses of their lasting memory, their remaining possessions, their photographs, their writings, and their surviving friends and family, who recount stories about their life. Certainly, this has been my experience with my own father, whose incessant hoarding provided an endless stream of artifacts, paperwork, and reminders of his passions, his business failures, his spiritual leanings, and odd possessions themselves (alternative medical devices from the 60s and 70s being one such example) that stood out as a stark reminder of the enigmatic and paradoxical nature of the man himself along with volumes of trash and debris itself that overwhelms the senses with a kind of psychic burden and looming baggage for which only death could absolve.

And so, the question remains like a dagger sticking in my head- “What, if anything, can we learn from the dead?” For one thing, we can learn how to appreciate life more. While it sounds cliche and trite, any soldier that has seen combat will tell you just how much greater appreciation they have for life after they’ve stared into the cold, expressionless faces of the newly killed. It reminds me of the scene from the movie Fight Club when the character played by Brad Pitt puts a gun to the back of a store clerk’s head and demands that he become what he originally wanted to be in life lest he shoot him. When Edward Norton asks- “What the fuck was the point of that?!” He replies, “Tomorrow that man will have the most beautiful day of his life. His breakfast will taste better than any breakfast we have ever known.” And, it’s precisely because the previous night, he thought he was going to be shot in the back of the skull by some deranged maniac in the parking lot of the convenience store he worked at just to “get by and pay the bills” and forgo his dreams of becoming a veterinarian. But now, he was given a new lease on life and a stern commandment- “Follow your dreams and true desires or die!” Just picture Tyler Derden as the Grim Reaper, and you’ll get the general idea.

How many of us have to face our own death before we can begin to live life? Perhaps, we all have to experience a little hell before we can appreciate a little heaven. Or perhaps, we’re all just a bit insane and stupid in that we’ve constructed a civilization that is so divorced from a humane world that we’ve forgotten how to be truly human anymore, at least insofar as the original meaning of the word “Hu” (God) “man”. Would a God-realized man put himself through the torture of a drudgery-filled job, surrounded by the empty spectacle of vacuous consumptions of corporate-driven commodities, and pursuing the greedy and materialistic false desires of a banal culture or to fulfill the whims of loveless relationships? Of course NOT! We’re so far removed from the natural world of real survival-based needs that we can’t distinguish between needs and desires, between biologically-ingrained instincts and conditioned reflexes, between our own idiosyncratic selves and the manufactured subterfuge media-enforced imagery that we adopt as our own. We’re psychically crippled and fragmented creatures as a result of the constant bombardment media and the demands of corporate America that assault our senses with the constant refrain- “Work, work, work…so you can earn, earn, earn more money, more money, more money…so you can buy, buy, buy, buy more stuff, more stuff, more stuff that you will have to work, work, work for.” It’s a never ending cycle of monotonous labor that turns Hu(God)mans into Slaves on the Job and Zombies off the Job.

None of the bullshit sold to us through Madison Avenue’s slick campaigns, particularly through their exemplars of the “Good Life” being celebrities, ever leads to lasting happiness. Ask Philip Seymour Hoffman about the “Good Life”. Or, better yet, ask Robin Williams about it. Was there anyone in the Hollywood limelight more seemingly full of childlike joy, exuberance, and humor than Robin Williams? And yet, for all the beauty, light, and spontaneity of this wonderful and gracious man…he succumbed to the inner demons of addiction, isolation, and despair. I can hear people thinking aloud, “Yeah, but he was wealthy, famous, and adored by millions of people around the world. Isn’t this the epitome of success? How could he ever reach the point of utter despair that he would commit suicide? It doesn’t make any sense.” It doesn’t make any sense only if you measure success, let alone happiness by the rubric of the mainstream media. However, make no mistake, Hollywood is known as the land of Illusion for a reason, just as peoples’ lives are shredded like tinsel on the Sunset Strip.

Do you think just because you have a star on the boardwalk…you aren’t going to get stepped on? Perhaps, more to the point, celebrity is strange kind of hell wherein suddenly what you do, who you’re with, what you say, where you go, and even how you dress becomes fodder for the gossiping, judgmental, and obsessive public. Fame seen in this unforgiving light can be quite oppressive indeed and might begin to explain why a genius like Stanley Kubrick avoided it like the plague or why Dave Chappelle walked away from $50 million and the 3rd season of “Chappelle Show”. He also understood how the image of who he was far superseded the flesh and blood man that he was and how Hollywood had a particularly sinister agenda for leading black actors as he related on the Oprah Winfrey Show at one point. It’s still hard to fathom how a man as seemingly loved as Robin Williams was could sink so low as he did. But, it only goes to show just how little the average person knows as to what really goes on behind the scenes in their favorite celebrities’ lives…try as they might to discover them in the tabloids. We see what we want to see or rather the smiling faces staring back at us from the front covers of People, Parade, Vanity Fair, GQ and Cosmopolitan. They all speak to the same over-riding and ubiquitous lie of modern life, namely that SUCCESS=WEALTH, FAME, BEAUTY, POPULAR TALENT. However, where is the soul in all of this? Or, for those of you who are atheists and secular humanists, where is the depth of character? By character, I don’t mean what new Marvel character they’re playing in the movies but rather strength and integrity of their inner self (psyche, mental clarity, emotional maturity, physical health, moral compass, etc.). At no point in the obsessions of Maxim Magazine, TMZ, or the National Inquirer is there any discussion of these aspects of a celebrity except in the most passing superficial way and hence both the public and celebrity are treated to another nauseating dose of ego-tripping clap trap that further erodes our sense of self as well as that of our heroes, who are eventually seen as the mere puppets of giant media corporations consciously or not.

The dead see past all pretensions of ego inflation and vanity, however. Your ultimate worth as a human being is seen, at least in this context, as a question of good selfless deeds in the service of others rather than the selfish deeds done in the furtherance of one’s career or status. Robin Williams was one of those uniquely gifted entertainers whose generosity of spirit was a great as his comedic talent and one of the main reasons why he will be missed by so many people, who knew him personally as well as on the screen. After all, even an actor can’t hide everything he/she is behind a role they’re playing. Part of their personality is bound to come out no matter how much of a chameleon they might be, particularly in roles that they’re often best known for. In Robin Williams’ case, this was even more true given that he showed both his comedic genius in movies like Good Morning Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Aladdin. And, he showed a great deal of empathic pathos in movies like Dead Poets Society, What Dreams May Come, and Good Will Hunting.

The great irony, however, about comedy is that some of the best comedians and comedy comes from the grist of tragedy. Certainly, this was the case with Richard Pryor, who was a longtime cocaine addict along with Robin Williams. Don’t forget that Robin even worked with Richard on his very short-lived “The Richard Pryor Show”, which I highly recommend checking out as you can on DVD. Richard Pryor was described by his writing partner, Paul Mooney, as being a lot like a child, which you can clearly see in some of his standup. This was also certainly true of Robin Williams, particularly in movies like Jack and Hook. The imagination of the child, innocent, free, and vivid is contrasted against the rigid rules of civilization as an undercurrent or subtext in many of Robin Williams’ movies, and you get the impression that this was not by accident. He identified with the blissful and carefree child in many regards and was one of the very few public figures, who could tap into that stream of childlike consciousness instantly. For adults, this can be quite dangerous given how stodgy and pretentious most people tend to be in these PC days, but they should all learn to love, laugh, and live more like the children they once were before they end up the bitter, miserable, and dying old farts they will eventually become.




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