I’d like to write a bit about depression, laughter, Mark Twain, the dividing line between fiction and reality, and Robin Williams (it’ll come together, just bear with me).
My favorite Mark Twain work is The Mysterious Stranger. It’s an odd choice, perhaps, given it’s status as a posthumous work. It was sort of cobbled together from different drafts, and there are a couple different versions of it, and it isn’t one of his well known works, but I found it to be decades ahead of its time. It is a very existential piece, especially in the ending. Mark Twain used a unique perspective—an angel named Satan—to bring to bare his most scathing rebuke of humanity. It isn’t particularly funny, but given Twain’s body of work, and the dark mood he came under in his later years, that can be forgiven. Besides the ending, the thing I like most about it is the following quote:
For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon–laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution– these can lift at a colossal humbug–push it a little–weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.
This was brought to mind yesterday with the news of Robin Williams’ death. But I often have this passage in mind whenever the news brings an unending torrent of woe and despair. Riots in Missouri, child beheadings in Iraq, war in Gaza and Ukraine, deadly virus outbreaks. So much bad going on, it’s hard to fathom. I have to remind myself that the world we live in is actually far safer than almost any time in human history. It just doesn’t seem that way sometimes.
That can happen on the personal level, too. If you’ve ever been clinically depressed, you know that life can feel like a highlight reel of bad news. I’ve been there. It’s a place where every negative about you, and the world around you, is exploded in proportion to everything else. It gets so bad that you go numb and your emotional nerve endings become nonexistent. When I was in the deepest trough of my depression, I alternated between panic and cold calculation. I added up all the variables, crunched the numbers, and decided that the universe would be improved if I wasn’t in it. I can look back at that time and see that I missed some numbers, or miscalculated values. But the constant loop in my head of bad-worse-worst let nothing in.
Addiction and depression are diseases, with behaviors very similar to viral and bacterial infections. They infect you, one way or another, and unless treated the infection spreads and can become fatal.
Robin Williams had a lot to live for. Family, friends, a world that valued him very highly. You might say what he did was selfish, in which case you might be an asshole. I can’t say it is universally true that those that commit suicide in this manner think this way, but I can say with authority what my thought patterns were when I attempted to take my own life. I was absolutely convinced that I was scum for doing it, but that was even more a reason to remove myself from my loved ones’ lives. They’d be better off without a quitter like me.
I was so wrong that it is difficult to talk about. I still feel a lot of shame, and that can tug me down sometimes. But I also know better how those feelings and actions impact the people around me. I know what a long-term deal it is, too. I saw plenty of evidence first hand at the mental health facility I was taken to. So when I find the things that pull me up, I grab hold of them hard. Writing is one of those things. Music, movies, books, theme parks—all of these are forms of stories, and I live for stories. If someone ever asks me why such things mean anything in the face of hardship around the world, the short answer is ‘because they do’ and the long answer is ‘because I don’t’.
Write what you know is a bit of a silly cliche, but in my case, I can’t help it. I write about the things that I’m most passionate about (like theme parks and monomyths), and also about themes I’m passionate about. Which means depression has cropped up a lot in my fiction, and will do so for a long time. It’s there in Gone To Wonder. It’s there in a short story I’m writing, about a kingdom trapped in an unending night. It’s there in my psyche, gnawing at the edges.
It’s important to me, then, to try to keep things in perspective. Nothing is ever truly black. Even in the darkest corner of the sky there’s light. Even in the blackest, gloomiest writing, there’s got to be humor. Because humor is the best weapon in our arsenal at holding back the demons that threaten to overwhelm us. Think about that first Saturday Night Live! episode after 9/11, or the hysterical and poignant Charlie Chaplin film, The Great Dictator, or the irreverent thumb-of-the-nose that was Dr. Strangelove. This is why the loss of a comedian like Robin Williams is being felt so much right now by so many. His arsenal was great, and will be missed.
People will always ask ‘why did he do it?’, but that’s the wrong question. The right question is ‘how did he fight so long?’ Family, friends, and laughter. In the end it wasn’t enough, but it sure makes a burden easier to bear.
On that note, I think we need to laugh. Here’s a clip of Robin Williams on Craig Ferguson’s show last fall. I could watch those two riff together for days.
No matter what happens, never lose your sense of humor.
Image via sesamestreet.tumblr.com