A couple of weeks ago my phone buzzed and a news app alerted me that Robin Williams had died. I immediately thought back to my childhood living room, overflowing with laughter as Mork from Ork bombarded us with one hilarious alien antic after another. I'm not sure another show's come along since that I've anticipated more from week to week than Mork and Mindy. Even at an early age, I knew Robin Williams was going to make a lot of people laugh in his lifetime.
What I didn't know then, and what is still difficult to understand now, is that while he was giving us one reason after another to laugh, he'd spent a lifetime struggling to find one of his own. When the evening news clarified death hadn't simply snuck up on Williams, but rather he'd chosen his own time and place to meet it, I wondered how such a dichotomy could ever come to live in a human being. A fountain that flowed with unending humor as funny as many of us have ever heard, living side by side with a well of sadness so suffocating that day by day reasons to live were swallowed up until no more could be found.
In this day and age, when a celebrity's life takes an unexpected turn - and in Williams' case a final turn - many of us have something to say about it. And with social media we are certainly afforded plenty to hear about it. In Williams' case, I was surprised by the nature of the reactions from most people. In spite of a selfish decision on his part, people went out of their way to understand how and why he would make such a choice. And don't be mistaken - it is selfish when you put ending your own misery over the considerations every other person in your life has for you - especially your immediate family.
For two weeks we've heard about this dark place Robin Williams lived in and just couldn't escape. One person after another has shared stories of their own battles with depression and substance abuse, and of those they've known and loved who've lost similar battles. Although there were the judgmental responses that seem to flow unchecked to most celebrity behaviors, the overwhelming reaction has been understanding. Some came to it naturally. But more were willing to pack away everything they could learn about depression and substance abuse and these dark places so many people live in, hidden from their own realities and ours, and head out on a search for understanding.
Many people found it. Many shared it with others. And oh what a difference it makes in discourse when the search for understanding kicks judgment to the end of the line. Robin Williams' suicide whispered eerily about all that was missing in his life. That same tragic death, though, screamed desperately about a missing ingredient in our culture. Many people said Robin Williams would want his death to raise awareness of various mental health issues in our country. I'm not sure Robin Williams had any of us on his mind or the lessons we'd take away when he killed himself, but I know he cared a lot about people in general, in this country and beyond, and I don't think he'd mind if we took a much greater lesson away from his passing.
In searching for understanding, many people found a way to feel sadness or hurt and in some cases relief for Robin Williams once they understood the nature of his dark place. It was a place, they discovered, so dark it limited his ability to rationally factor in the consequences of his own suicide: a lifetime of unanswered questions for sons and daughters, the grief of family and friends, the future flow of laughter others would be deprived of - possibly right when they would need it most. Selfishness against the backdrop of understanding looks very differently than it does in the face of judgment.
I couldn't help but think back on recent events that involved other dark places. Almost two years ago in Newtown, Connecticut, Adam Lanza barged into Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot 20 little kids and their teachers. As we got to know Lanza after the shootings, it became clear he had a dark place dwelling in him as well. Yet, very few people searched for understanding. We grieved with the parents of babies lost to his bullets. And the more we did, the more we were driven to write the life of Lanza off as a reflection of evil.
Am I comparing Robin Williams to Adam Lanza. No. I'm comparing their dark places. And if we understand that these dark places don't show favoritism to celebrities, they don't allow one to end his own life and the other to inflict horror on others, and if we understand that darkness seeks to snuff out light not people, but in doing so can reduce people to the choice of suicide or homicide, then maybe we're not led to accept the choice - or even forgive it - but we are more likely to be led to a place free of hate and judgment.
Over the past decade, there have been too many stories about mothers drowning their babies in bathtubs. I have boys who are barely beyond baby days. I can picture their heads being held underwater, their struggle to survive in the unfairest of fights, and then their lifelessness. It enrages me and fills me with unanswerable questions. But these are emotions and questions born in light. Not until I consider the places of darkness that so many of these killings begin can I start to understand it. I've never been to the dark place Robin Williams was the night he killed himself, so it's hard for me to imagine killing myself. But if we believe these dark places rob us of our ability to see the value in our own lives, certainly it doesn't show favor on us when we measure the lives of our own children. I can't begin to explain drowning kids in bathtubs, but in trying to understand it I'm moved away from a place of hate and judgment.
In Ferguson, Missouri the past couple of weeks we've witnessed how quickly an unwillingness to search for understanding can explode into hate and judgment. To me, the scenes from Ferguson confirm not only don't we understand one another, our desire to do so is fading fast. The crisis there started when an unarmed black teenager was shot by a white police officer. On the surface, that's what stirred the unrest and subsequent violence that erupted after the shooting. And although the surface always provides a great starting point with details like "unarmed" and "a struggle over a gun" - you'll need to go much deeper than that to search for understanding of the what's really going on there and in communities across our country.
All the understanding that poured out for this dark place Robin Williams once lived in is completely missing when we look at places like Ferguson, steeped in racial tension. Because we don't search, we often fail to see the dark places many black people are living in. I think too many white people have grown so accustomed to looking at uprisings like the one in Ferguson and saying "black people use these events to play the race card" that we've actually convinced ourselves their plight truly is a game and this race card some form of cheating. The reality is black people usually aren't invited to the game, and when they are, the race card is often the only one they have to play.
Ferguson is just one event, but it serves as a tipping point for the anger so many black people hold in every day. Not anger about a police shooting. That's the release. Anger that this country started with white people and black property. This country started with black people holding no more human value than the crops they planted, tended and harvested to make white people rich. All that did was give white people a head start in life they've never looked back from. White people are quick to say we understand that. Slavery. We're sorry. Now get over it. Which I could more easily accept if I thought we truly understood the "it".
A couple of years ago, 3 white women escaped from the house in Cleveland, Ohio where they'd been held captive by Ariel Castro for more than ten years. Castro abducted them when they were young girls between the ages of 14 and 21. He made them slaves of many of his varied desires. Now, after they are out - after only a decade, not generations - do we expect these women to simply catch up with the rest of the world like nothing ever happened? If they jump back in the line of equal opportunity, are their opportunities really equal? And if they have children of their own one day will all be forgotten, or will they pass on to them the hatred they feel for Castro and the evil he stands for? What if they never get over it, will we really have such a hard time understanding that? If you see a large gap between this scenario and the history of slavery, you're not digging deep enough for understanding.
Without searching, you can't begin to understand what a predominantly black community feels like being policed by a nearly all white police force in Ferguson. You can't understand that the tensions didn't start with a shooting. A dead Michael Brown for them was a reminder that the history of white on black abuse in the Ferguson community continues in a country that was founded on the same. The details of the shooting might eventually shine light on one incident, but it won't erase history, the effects of which in some cases linger, but in too many are thriving.
You know, one of the common cries I hear from white people in situations like Ferguson comes when Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson show up. Inevitably we hear the where are these guys when there is black on white abuse? I've got to tell you, when white people ask that question, we show our ignorance. The reason these two guys don't show up in those situations is because they know better than anyone that we - white people - don't NEED them.
One of the advantages of the white head start on slaves was we got 100 years or so of college education before blacks were even allowed near a university. That left us almost exclusively - in theory - qualified to run the federal, state and local governments. Today, whites run most colleges and fortune 500 businesses. We control the rapidly growing influence of social media. We are the several hundred channels of cable television. The reality is white people, in their head start, grabbed hold of nearly every policy making, influencing, and enforcing position they could snag while blacks transitioned from property to people. It's naive to think through that process whites didn't stack the deck in favor of their own. It's foolish to believe that bias has completely repaired itself today.
Blacks would serve themselves well to search for understanding themselves. I worked for many years with at-risk youth. During that time, I had the chance to meet a few hundred young back kids. One thing I took away from that experience was in building relationships with the black kids, I learned I first had to get them to quit hating me. So many of them met me for the first time, saw I was white, and immediately established hate as the foundation of our connection. Not all of them, but many. Since then, when I meet black people, I wonder subconsciously - sometimes consciously - do they hate me because I got this head start in life at their expense. Do they know I had nothing to do with it?
For reasons I outlined above, I grew to understand this awkwardness. I think deep inside many blacks and whites are tired of being mired in an unspoken battle over apologies and forgiveness. They both realize to advance an unjust system to justice, hate has to be removed once and for all. Yes, whites did blacks wrong. But today, there are more whites than ever who abhor our connection to that period in history and are ready to move toward true equality. We don't seek to understand how to do that nearly enough, but blacks could also help in that movement by spending as much time searching to understand where we're truly coming from today as they do protesting us, by engaging us as partners instead of obstacles. Apologies and reparations are not going to advance justice. A mutual search for understanding will. If we ever truly embrace that search, we'll discover that our diversity is actually an asset, not a wall.
Let me wrap up by saying this. A search for understanding doesn't excuse behavior. I've searched for understanding for how Robin Williams could selfishly take his own life. And I've found a great deal of it. I still believe what he did was wrong, but looking at his choice through the empathy I've found searching for understanding, I am better equipped to help prevent someone else from making the same choice. I believe the violent responses to what's happened in Ferguson from blacks and whites have been wrong. But searching to understand them is the only way to be prepared to make a difference in my own community. When you look at anything by searching for understanding, you are more likely to end up in a place free of judgment and hate - the biggest obstacles life can throw at progress.
Moving forward, I'm committed to asking more people to explain their struggles to me. Not so I can fix them or make that the first step to bringing them around to my way of thinking, but as a search for understanding. We've grown to rely too heavily on elected officials or even a 200 year old constitution to guarantee us equality. Neither have remotely accomplished that. Only in the spirits of man, in searching to understand one another instead of defining one another, is equality ever truly going to be reality.