Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Staying the Lightning's Hand: Christopher Reeve, Robin Williams, and My Own Grieving

Trigger word warning: suicide

One of my biggest childhood idols was the actor turned quadriplegic activist Christopher Reeve.  Of course he was known to everybody else long before his horseback riding accident as Superman, but I was only 9 when Reeve broke his C1/C2 vertebrae.  I really only knew him as the actor who suddenly got dealt a really crappy hand and really did amazing things with it before he died nine years later, in 2004.  Physically, we are very similar: he was an inch taller than I am, and about 10 pounds leaner, we both were asthmatics, and we both began losing our hair as teenagers.  And he was an amazing role model: he personally intervened when the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile was prepared to execute 77 actors.  When asked to run for Congress, he declined, famously replying, "And lose my influence in Washington?"  Given a copy of Reeve's 1998 autobiography Still Me, I devoured it in just a couple of sittings.

But perhaps the best story I ever found of Reeve, the one that endeared him to me the most, came from the pages of Eric Schlosser's seminal 2001 expose Fast Food Nation.  In the book's fourth chapter, he relays the experience of a Little Ceasars crew attending a "success" conference in Denver, where, surprisingly enough, Reeve is booked as one of the speakers:

"I've had to leave the physical world," Reeve says.  A stillness falls upon the arena; the place is silent during every pause.  "By the time I was twenty four, I was making millions," he continues.  "I was pretty pleased with myself...I was selfish and neglected my family...since my accident, I've been realizing...that success means something quite different."

Members of the audience start to weep.  "I see people who achieve these conventional goals," he says in a mild, even tone.  "None of it matters."

His words cut through all the snake oil of the last few hours, calmly and with great precision.  Everybody in the arena, no matter how greedy or eager for promotion, all eighteen thousand of them, know deep in their hearts that what Reeve has just said is true, too true.  Their latest schemes, their plans to market and subdivide and franchise their way up, whatever the cost...vanish in an instant.  Men and women up and down the aisles wipe away tears, touched not only by what this famous man has been through but also by a sudden awareness of something hollow about their own lives, something gnawing and unfulfilled.

During some of the darkest moments of my own life, the years of 2000 to 2003, when I was actively contemplating suicide myself, I leaned heavily on the inspiration I could find in abundance in Reeve's life and words.  I had just moved away from home for college a month or two prior to Reeve's sudden death, and I was devastated upon hearing the news.  Someone who I had spent years looking up to was gone.

And that sort of devastation was something I rarely felt, or feel, to this day...but I felt it on Monday when the news broke of Robin Williams' suicide by hanging.  It wasn't just that the guy had starred in a bunch of movies that were hallmarks of my childhood.  It wasn't just that the man had played one of my favorite roles of any movie, ever, as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting.

It was that I recalled that Reeve had dedicated an entire chapter of Still Me to his time at Juilliard, and his *only* classmate (in a class of two) in Juilliard's Advanced Program at the time was...Robin Williams.  A close friendship between the two was almost inevitable, forged in the crucible of the demanding nature of Juilliard's coursework, and when Reeve broke his C1/C2 vertebrae, it was Williams who stopped by during his rehabilitation (which was, by Reeve's own admission, host to some of his own worst and darkest emotional moments) to try to cheer him up.

I saw a lot of posts on my Facebook and Twitter feeds about how we cannot be so surprised that those who make their living trying to get us to laugh and feel joy end up taking their own life, and I suppose I can empathize with that sentiment.  But what I remember from Reeve is that Williams was not just about making people laugh or helping them find joy, but that he could, and would, try to help people find joy when there was simply no joy to be found.

Hell, this is the guy who was invited by Steven Spielberg to come help bring at least a little bit of laughter for cheering up while Spielberg was filming his intensely dark masterpiece Schindler's List.

And whatever else you might think about the triviality and frivolity of comedy, that has to be a form of ministry.

But now, nearly ten years apart, these two differing ministers of sorts are dead and gone, each by an unexpected means.  The deaths of both, and Reeve's initial accident, came like lightning bolts out of the sky, striking down not only the men themselves but those whose lives were enriched by them and were shocked and stunned to hear about what had happened.  It was as though you were in the middle of a thunderstorm, and each bolt of lightning had found an unwilling target to shock.

So much of my own ministry, I have come to realize, revolves around staying the lightning's terrible hand.  I work to prevent people in poverty from getting their utilities shut off or from being evicted and made homeless.  I provide counsel and care to people as they lay terminal in what will eventually be their deathbeds.  I try to stave off the devastating effects of death and destruction, even though I know damn well that heaven awaits the souls of those who die after a compassionate, loving, and faithful life.

Perhaps I should not be so shocked that men like Reeve and Williams were taken (or took themselves) from us long before they ever should have.  And for all the talk we make of suicide as a selfish choice (and I get that, because my own experience with depression is that it completely and utterly prevents you from being able to see the long game in things.  Through no fault of your own, you become incredibly near sighted.), it is likewise selfish of me to want to keep my heroes here.

And so as I grieve their deaths, I also grieve my own selfishness.  It is the selfishness I feel whenever I see someone I admire, care about,  and appreciate pass on.  It is the selfishness that contributes to that awful feeling of devastation I get whenever that news first hits my ears and my brain registers its reality.

And so while we may be quick to judge the selfishness of Robin Williams' suicide, perhaps it is our own selfishness that we should be equally quick to judge.  Perhaps we should be grieving not only the death, but the brokenness we see from ourselves in its wake.  Perhaps our grieving cannot, should not, and will not be limited simply to the departed.

Hey, I don't know.  I'm just a guy with a blog.  But as I grieve, as I mourn, and as I try to stay the lightning in my own life, it's at least a place for me to start.

Yours in Christ,

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