ISIS, Robin Williams, and Why Art Matters

August 12, 2014 — 3 Comments

My Facebook feed before yesterday was dominated by news, comments and calls to action about the situation in Iraq where the Islamic militant group ISIS is attempting to systematically wipe out entire cultures and religions that they disagree with. It’s horrifying to watch and I’m glad our country is doing something to help.

Yesterday and today, my feed became a split between that and news, comments and calls to action about Robin Williams’ suicide and the reality of depression and addiction.

Both situations are, in my opinion, tragic. Is one worse than the other? Well, certainly by most measures the brutal murder of so many thousands in Iraq is worse than the death of one man that I never met (though I did eat in the same restaurant with Robin Williams once. He was wearing a tank top. He was very hairy and it was not appetizing). Yet, both are dominating the news and my Facebook and it’s kind of hard to put a 1-10 ranking on tragedy. And both of these stories tell me some things.

First, they tell me I’ve done a good job cultivating my Facebook feed so as to weed out all the people who post game requests and extreme angry right or left wing political rants. That’s taken me a while and I’m pretty proud of it. But more importantly it tells me that these two events touch our lives for different reasons but equally. I guess you could argue that we’re just a celebrity-obsessed culture and so when someone like Robin Williams dies, we go overboard in our sorrow while letting “real” tragedies escape our attention. And you’d have a good argument. But I think the reason why my news feed blew up yesterday is because art matters. And Robin Williams, through his incredible talent and career, affected our lives in very real ways.

Robin Williams was more than just a funny man. Musician Joe Henry put it this way, “It is especially disconcerting -ravenous upon our souls– when our most fierce clowns willingly take leave of us: those who have ushered us through darkness, have whistled us past the graveyard; who have shown that what is funny is what is true, and what is true is the thread that unites all of us as mortals, while we pretend not be.” Those are real things that Robin’s comedy did for us. And he combined his comedy with heavy subjects masterfully. Dead Poets Society came out not too long before I was making the transition from high school to college and it gave me resolve in my path to be an artist – which is often synonymous with a path to be different – at a critical time in my life. I watch it regularly to remember the lesson that “We do not read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, engineering; these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love; these are what we stay alive for.” The fictitious medical theory that comatose patients could “borrow the will” of a tennis ball put forth by Dr. Malcolm Sayer in Awakenings has always reminded me that sometimes when others can’t go on or do for them selves, they need to borrow my will to make it. And, of course, Sean Maguire telling Will Hunting “It’s not your fault” and “I had to see about a girl” are lessons we all remember. I could go on about The Fisher King, Patch Adams, and so many others.

In many ways, it’s not wrong to say that I care about the tragedy in Iraq, or any number of countless other far away situations that are hard to wrap my mind around, because of the art of Robin Williams and others. Art does more than just give us facts. It buries things deep in our souls in a way that just facts can’t. And, at its best, that level of penetrating calls us to action. So I care about both stories. And in that way, both are equally tragic.

How are you going to be different in light of these two news stories? Let me know in the comments. Here are some things I’m doing:

I am praying for the situation in Iraq.
I have written my congressmen.
I am looking into aid organizations like this one that I can send some money to.

I’m also thinking about depression and addiction. I’m reaching out to friends that come to mind when I say those words. It turns out that one of them really needed a friend right now. I’m remembering that it takes more than just saying, “You are not alone.” And I’m sharing the words of my good friend Janice below.

“The worst pain is the one you’re experiencing right now.” None of us can possibly know exactly what’s going on inside another human being. I pray each of you is able to know you are loved and your life has value. If you ever doubt that you can go on and don’t want to “bother” your friends or family, please call 1-800-273-8255(TALK). If you’ve ever had suicidal thoughts please put this number in your contacts list.

  • Beth Champion Mason

    Well said, Joe!

    • Joe Mazza

      Thanks, Beth. You’re definitely one of those artists who has had a tangible affect on my life!

      • Beth Champion Mason

        That really means a lot! And the feeling is mutual. :-)