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The fool, no knave

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Remembering Robin Williams

'The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.'

As You Like It; Act V, scene i

I was on my way to the grocery store when I first heard that Robin Williams had died. This being the Internet Age, I immediately questioned the validity of the news. I demanded that my wife find confirmation from a legitimate source. A few taps on a smartphone were enough to verify the worst.

'It's coming fromVariety,' she said. 'And theLA Times.'

So it wasn't a hoax. It was real. And it was heartbreaking.

We spend so much time with entertainment figures that we form bonds with them. Sure, these bonds are largely one-way at least in the specific but they are no less real because of that. These are people that are invited into our homes; they make us laugh and cry and think. Some of them become indelible parts of our lives maybe our adolescence or our adulthood or both. Their presence is imprinted upon us.

Robin Williams was one such figure.

His brilliance as a performer is undeniable. His comedic sensibility was built on a foundation of turned-up-to-11 energy matched with fearlessness. The label 'force of nature' gets applied fairly liberally to performers these days, but with Williams, there's no more apt descriptor. He was a whirlwind of improvisational fervor and exquisite timing.

And sweat. So much sweat.

He was a cultural mainstay for almost four decades, bringing joy to multiple generations across a wide variety of mediums and genres. He was the affable alien Mork and Popeye the Sailor Man. He was Aladdin's Genie and Peter Pan all grown up. He came to live inside board games and came to life inside museums.

He could be indomitable, whether he was Euphegenia Doubtfire or T.S. Garp. He inspired as DJ Adrian Cronauer, as teacher John Keating and as therapist Sean Maguire. He healed ('Awakenings'; 'Patch Adams') and harmed ('Insomnia'; 'One Hour Photo'). He displayed a range and level of commitment rarely matched in the annals of entertainment.

Of course, they weren't all gold. A career as long and prolific as his was bound to produce the occasional dud. But even in his less-successful outings, his fervency was always at the forefront. The glow of his talent inevitably shone through in everything that he did. And his willingness to take chances, to step outside of comfort zones (his own or those of his fans), may have produced some misfires, yes but also some of his most compelling work.

The all-out nature of what Robin Williams was could be mistaken as desperation. And there's little doubt that he felt a real desire, that making that connection with his audience whether on stage or on screen was vitally important to him. But that's a long way from desperation. He wanted to make his audience an accessory to the act, a partner in crime. He wanted it badly. You could even say that he needed it.

But his only desperate act was his final one.

None of us can know the pain Williams was enduring in his final days the only one who truly understands those motivations is no longer here. It's an illustration of just how powerful and insidious depression can be; even a man as talented and beloved as Robin Williams cannot escape its grasp.

The death of an icon brings with it a profundity of sadness. And when that death comes by that icon's own hand the product of countless years struggling with depression and addiction it cuts all the deeper.

All we can hope is that he has found whatever peace it was that he ultimately sought.

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