This morning I learned about Robin William’s suspected suicide. I am stunned and heart broken. I had become so used to having him around. I remembered how much his movies enriched my childhood (Hook, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumangi and the Birdcage), teenage (Good Will Hunting and Patch Adams) and young adult years (Awakenings).
As I read the condolences from his friends and peers in the entertainment industry, I noticed how many of them emphasized William’s acts of kindness. Most of appreciate when people are kind to us, but few of us are consistently kind to others. The fact that this man, with all his fame, power and accolades still made treating others with kindness a priority, is remarkable to me.
Last year, the New York Times featured a graduation speech that the author George Saunder’s gave to the Syracuse University class of 2013. In the speech Saunder’s advised graduates about the need for kindness and not sacrificing it in the name of “success.” Here is an excerpt:
Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me)
Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.
So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?”
Saunder’s goes on to explain that being kind is difficult and becomes easier as people grow older. Then he challenged the graduates:
Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really:selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf — seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.”
This was one of my favorite graduation speeches because it forced me to do some serious self-examination. I quickly realized that kindness is often held captive by the fear of rejection. Because we are social animals the fear of being expelled by our group can be so consuming that it becomes easy to fall into that pitfalls of ego, prejudice, defensiveness, etc., to protect the pecking order.
The fact that Robin Williams, a man who made kindness a priority in his life, died from such a cruel disease is devastating. I have experienced depression in the past and currently have loved ones dealing with it now. It can be debilitating. I am fortunate enough to have experienced so much kindness in the forms of encouragement and compassion from people throughout my career. It has helped me endure some very stressful events and it has inspired me to be kinder and more supportive to my peers going through tough times. I am far from perfect and sometimes lapse into episodes of selfishness, but I try to be conscientious about kindness and it’s worth the struggle.
Robin Williams inspired millions of people with his talent, but it was his kindness to the people in his life that I most admire. Showing people your talent is a lot easier than consistently making people feel loved and appreciated. Thank you Robin for making that a priority. RIP.
Robin Williams image via collider.com