Recently, Robin Williams apparently chose to take his own life. The news hit me so hard that I couldn't bring myself to write or comment about it for a while. Even had the subject not been so tender for me, I didn't feel I had anything relevant to say.
Now, I think I might.
Robin Williams, the man who brought so much joy and laughter to the world, couldn’t find enough of those treasures for himself. I won’t follow the footsteps of the many who have called his action selfish, or who have in some other way judged him for committing suicide. His death seems a tragic loss for the rest of us, but I am not able to pass judgment on how much suffering another man can tolerate.
And frankly, as a follower of Jesus, I am not called to judge people, but to love them.
And I did love Robin Williams. When I was a boy, watching him on “Mork & Mindy”, I was inspired by his comic genius. He would go on to touch my life through the films that followed, including Patch Adams, The World According to Garp, Dead Poet’s Society, Good Will Hunting, and a plethora of others.
Like many other people, I identified with Robin Williams and his view of the world (at least as I perceived it to be.) I felt connected to him, even though we never met. So when I heard the news of his death, it was like a physical blow.
That blow took on new dimensions when I learned the shocking news…
Robin Williams Had Parkinson’s Disease
In the wake of William’s death, his widow revealed that he’d been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Many believe this was the final blow that caused him to despair and take his own life. I don’t know if that is true or not.
But the news of his diagnosis was especially significant to me, because I myself was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2011. Like Williams, I chose to keep my diagnosis secret for as long as possible. I wrote about this, and my decision to go public with my illness, in a blog post entitled, The Time Has Come.
I was shocked to hear of Williams's diagnosis because he’s the second actor with whom I felt a close connection to be diagnosed with this disease.
Who is the other? Michael J. Fox.
Michael J. Fox and Parkinson’s Disease
I was a Michael J. Fox fan back when he was on the sitcom Family Ties, and of course through his Back to the Future films, Spin City, and most of his other work. I probably saw every film he was in. In the charming, bumbling, but admirable characters he often played, I felt I could see myself. I felt we grew up together.
When Fox publicly announced his diagnosis almost 20 years ago, and left the Spin City cast, I felt sad. And I remember thinking, “That poor bastard. I feel so sorry for him.”
And I forgot about him. For a while.
Then I Was Diagnosed With Parkinson’s
My initial symptoms were mild, and my diagnosis was swift and surrealistic. I went from being the “normal guy” who had no health problems, to being “that poor bastard”, with a daily pile of pills that kept my body functioning in a semi-normal fashion.
I immediately recalled how horrified I had been by Fox’s condition. Now I was living out the same story.
Suddenly, small things mattered a great deal. I had to think about what I might eat at a restaurant that didn't require a great deal of dexterity (hints: skip the peel & eat shrimp, and anything requiring cutting with a knife.) I worried about whether I “looked weird”, because the disease causes tremors, slowness, and uncoordinated movements.
I experienced depression for a while.
But eventually, I realized I had a choice to make.
Get Busy Living, Or Get Busy Dying
I decided I was not going to be defined by this disease, and that while I remain on earth I intend to live life fully alive. Parkinson’s Disease is not fatal, by the way. You don’t die from it, you die with it (although I refuse even to accept that prognosis – I plan to recover from it. But that’s for another post, some other time.)
I was absolutely not going to sit down and quit the race because of a minor neurological inconvenience.
That’s when I began to notice my old “pal” Michael J. Fox again. He has been an icon to many in the 20 years since his initial diagnosis, demonstrating what it means to keep living, keep loving, and keep contributing, even in the face of a rather daunting challenge.
And this leads me to my point.
We Can Choose Joy Even In The Face Of Tough Challenges
Robin Williams and Michael J Fox were friends. Both actors, both known for their comedic roles and their ability to bring joy to others.
Michael J. Fox has chosen to keep living life to the fullest, to find joy in every possible moment, and to make a significant contribution to the world through the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
Robin Williams ultimately was not able to find enough joy to make life seem worth living. So he killed himself. How much of that decision was influenced by the Parkinson’s diagnosis is unclear.
Hear me: I am not judging Robin Williams. I am not angry with him. But I am sad he is gone, and sad that so many hearts are broken by his death. What might he have been able to contribute had he chosen to remain?
I think these two comic geniuses – Robin Williams and Michael J. Fox – illustrate clearly the two possible paths we can all take when faced with tough challenges.
It’s not just about Parkinson’s disease.
Your challenge might be financial, marital, or emotional. It could be the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, or yes… a devastating medical diagnosis.
But we will all face one or more major problems in our life. Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet.
Your best defense is to be mentally and spiritually prepared before it happens. And to that end, here are…
5 Important Facts to Remember When Facing Tough Challenges
No matter what you may be facing in life, you can always choose to find more joy, and more peace, by remembering these 5 facts.
- “Our challenges don’t define us, our actions do.” This is something Michael J. Fox said that has been a beacon for me and countless others. Present two people with the same challenge and you will often see polar opposite responses. And the issue is not how we might feel about a challenge. Trust me, nobody wakes up and says, “Wow, I’m so glad I have Parkinson’s today!” No, it’s not about feelings, it’s about what we do. And the curious thing is: emotions tend to follow motions. In other words, what you do often determines how you feel. So choose life, get up “off your BUT” (as Sean Stephenson says), and live life. Fully alive.
- Asking better questions produces better answers. Let me just give you the spoiler: asking “Why me?” is a stupid, pointless question that will only lead to tears. Why not you? Bad things happen. We’re living in an imperfect world. So start asking better questions. Like, “How can I use this? What can I learn from this? How can I turn this around to benefit others, and myself, and enjoy the process?” Now those are useful questions.
- If you’re still here, you still have a purpose to fulfill. When you wake up in the morning, there’s a reason. The only reason you remain on the earth is that God still has a purpose for you to fulfill. Your job is to figure out what that purpose is, and get busy fulfilling it.
- Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I don’t want to be a downer, but you are going to experience pain. Even Jesus, the ultimate optimist, said: “In this world, you will have trouble.” It’s important to remember, though, that he followed that up by saying, “Fear not, because I have overcome the world.” If we respond out of fear, we perpetuate our pain. But when we respond out of faith, hope, and love, we are in possession of our power.
- Prayer doesn’t always change things, but it does always change you. God is still in the miracle business. I’ve seen it too many times to believe otherwise. And yet sometimes, the answer to our prayer doesn't always seem to arrive on the schedule, or in the manner we were hoping for. Prayer doesn’t change God, who is changeless. And it seemingly doesn’t always change our circumstances. The one thing that always changes when we pray is … us. And when we ourselves change, without fail we see our circumstances in a new light.
One Final Piece of Advice
One fact is undeniable about Robin Williams’s death: as a result of his suicide, he’s no longer in pain, but millions of other people are.
Tragically, some might see his suicide as a possible path for them to escape their own pain.
If you ever reach a point of despair so deep that self-murder seems the only way to end your pain, please talk to someone else first. Someone in your life who knows you – even if you don’t feel particularly close.
You might just be surprised to discover that other people do care about you after all.
Even if you’re sick. Or divorced. Or old. Or addicted. Or whatever it is that causes your pain.
Let someone else know what you’re thinking. Give them a chance to love you, before you irrevocably break their hearts.
You, and you alone, get to choose who you are, and how you show up in the world.
Remember that our challenges don’t define us, but our actions do.