My last few posts have been on the heavy side, though the last one in particular struck a chord for lots of folks--indeed, I've never had a post on The Twelve that was subsequently mentioned as often by my fellow bloggers as that last one on this "sad summer." So maybe something a bit lighter, albeit relating to something that in and of itself is not light: the death of Robin Williams.
I wish Mr. Williams were still alive for all kinds of human and Christian reasons. But I am surely glad he came our way. Oh, I know, he had lots of personal problems and was not above cutting loose with language that offends us religious folks. But he was natively funny and he made us laugh, and that is a gift I think we sometimes undervalue. Even some comedians downplay their role in the grander scheme of things, acknowledging that what they do is not exactly akin to cancer research, the work of heart surgeons, or relief workers in disaster zones. Still, laughter is a gift and even the Bible--and Jesus himself--are funnier than most Christians tend to realize or acknowledge.
So let me share the biggest laugh Robin Williams ever gave me. It came in a scene from the movie Mrs. Doubtfire. Robin's character, Daniel Hillard, is in disguise as the housekeeper Mrs. Doubtfire and is having a conversation with his ex-wife, Miranda, who, of course, has no idea she is putting the groceries away with her ex-husband. At one point Mrs. Doubtfire is putting away some plastic-wrapped packages of hamburger and says, "Ohhh, handling this cold meat reminds me of my dead husband, Winston."
"How did he die?" Miranda asks.
"Well, you see, he was quite fond of the drink. In fact, it was the drink that killed him."
"Ah, he was an alcoholic?"
"No, he was hit by a Guinness truck. So you see it was quite literally the drink that killed him."
My wife and I watched this movie on a VHS rental tape a few years after it came out. But my wife had to stop the tape for a couple of minutes following this scene because I had fallen off the sofa and was convulsed with mirth on the den floor.
Laughter like that may not be the most important thing in life. But as it happened, at the time we watched Mrs. Doubtfire, I was going through a very turbulent time in the congregation I was serving. Stinging missives, barbed emails, and cutting comments had been coming my way fast and furious for a while until I was feeling pretty well beat down--it was a "smoldering wick and bruised reed" time in ministry.
Not only did it feel good, then, to laugh as hard as I did at this silly scene, it was somehow restorative. I felt better after the movie. Laughter does that. Over the years my family and I have watched over and over again a few other VHS tapes that feature Johnny Carson's favorite moments from his years of hosting The Tonight Show. Like Robin Williams, Johnny had his problems in life and was in many ways hardly a moral role model. But he was funny and made me laugh, and the antics with animals and funny guests he helped to foster have made my whole family howl together in laughter (even when watching some of them for the 15th time). And I somehow think that laughing together as a family is, to riff on a Raymond Carver line, "a small good thing."
Though I cannot approve of everything Robin Williams said and did in his career, I am glad he made us laugh because wherever the ability to be funny fits in the grand scheme of things, it is a gift in its own way.
On a more sober note (after all), one thing I have not seen anyone pick up on is how another Robin Williams film ends. In Dead Poets Society one of the young men who comes under the influence of the teacher, Mr. Keating, commits suicide at the end of the film after his stern, cruel, and controlling father makes it clear he will crush his son's every ambition to be an actor. Mr. Keating gets blamed for the death and becomes the school's fall guy. He is summarily fired. But as he cleans out his stuff from the classroom cloakroom, his remaining students catch a glimpse of him and in a now-famous scene, many of them signal their support of Keating by standing on their desks and shouting the Whitman line Keating had taught them, "O Captain, my Captain!"
Some of us have echoed this now following Williams's own real-life suicide. "O Captain, my Captain--thanks for passing this way. And remember as Someone once said: Blessed are you who mourn now, for you will laugh."