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Robin Williams and the Mask of Humor

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Robin Williams died today. He was 63. There are multiple reports that he took his own life. If true, and there is no reason to doubt the reports, he succumbed to depression.

Williams was so multi-talented and so brilliantly funny that it is hard to imagine him sad much less depressed.

Part of it, of course, is that he was a movie star, far removed from our "normal" lives. But it is not only his celebrity status that makes Williams's depression hard to imagine.

It's not just that he was rich and famous and funny, it's also that his energy level always seemed higher than that of anyone else in the room. He was the maniacal DJ in Good Morning Vietnam. He was the irrepressible Genie in Aladdin. He was the David Letterman guest that, as Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine, left viewers "astonished, thrilled, and wearied." He was, literally, one of the featured characters in Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy" video.

By all accounts, it wasn't just an act.

Many stars are very different than their on-screen personas. Not Williams. He had a reputation for being nice, as well as funny. See, for example, this recollection from a one-time dinner companion. Clearly, the humor was a core part of who Robin Williams really was.

So was the depression.

Robin Williams
Funny people are experts at using humor to cover up pain
(image by Source Unknown)
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We shouldn't be surprised. The first-hand recollections of Williams appearing all over the internet recall not only his humor but also his cocaine and alcohol addictions, as well as his pain and depression. In many ways, Williams is the modern-day, real-life Richard Cory, a tragic reminder that appearances can be deceiving and that even humor -- especially humor -- can be used as a mask that shields both the wearer and those around him, from the pain underneath.

For the past several years, I have had the privilege of spending a few hours each week with the incarcerated youth in the county where I live. I'm there to introduce the kids to the values and practices of restorative justice, to the idea that there are more effective and productive ways to deal with conflict than via violence.

Sometimes, we do role-plays. Sometimes, I tell stories. Mostly, I try to listen, to really hear what is true and meaningful in their lives. I do this because it's the best way I know to build relationships and also because, if I'm not willing to listen to them, why should they bother listening to me?

Every week, the composition of the group changes a little. Over the years, I've met well over 100 kids. Some are so sad they are unable to utter more than a few words. Others are angry and resentful about being where they are, again. Another group tries to "play it cool". Each type presents its own challenge, but there's another group that is harder to reach than any of the rest: the entertainers.

These are the kids that have learned how to make others laugh. They've also learned that, in that comedic moment, they can temporarily forget about their incarcerated fathers, their abusive uncles, their substance-dependent mothers, and all the other troubles in their life. In that comedic moment, they hurt just a bit less. And so they grasp every opportunity to entertain and, in doing so, cover-up the pain.

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And if I say to them, "you're a funny guy -- I love how you make everyone around you laugh -- but I can see that there is also a part of you that is sad," they say "Naw, I ain't sad. It's all good. I'm good."

But they're not good. Because the pain never leaves for long.

I don't know anything about Robin Williams's inner life. I don't purport to know whether he was able and willing to confront his demons. I have no negative judgment regardless for I trust that decent people do what they are able to both live a good life and not cause others unnecessary pain and Williams was clearly a decent man.

Despite their crimes against society, most of the kids I meet at the detention center are also decent, and most of them are also struggling. The ones that are silly, that tell non-stop stories and jokes? They may be struggling more than most.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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