As I began writing about hope, one of life’s bitter ironies became a sobering gut-check. I learned that one of my favorite actors, Robin Williams, committed suicide. It affected me more than I expected. The man famously known as “the funny guy” was plagued with sorrow. I never fully realized the extent until after his death.
Privately Robin Williams suffered from long term depression. He had an addiction to cocaine in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He reported that John Belushi’s death was his wake up call forcing him to turn to healthier outlets for relieving his depression. However, in 2010 he acknowledged his continued struggles with alcoholism. Shortly before he took his life, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His coroner’s report showed he had diffuse Lewy body dementia which his doctor’s reportedly believe was a critical factor leading to his suicide.
My first memory of Robin Williams was his funny quirkiness as Mork, an alien from the planet Ork, who arrived in an eggshell space ship. The sitcom was goofy; a delightful distraction from my homework. I wondered about the man so accomplished at giving joy to others and yet so joyless himself for long periods in his life.
My sadness was amplified when I remembered the role Williams played in What Dreams May Come. It’s a love story about hope overcoming despair. Chris Neilsen (Williams) and his wife Annie lose their children in a car crash. Annie suffers a mental break down and the strain on their marriage leads to the precipice of divorce. On the anniversary commemorating their decision not to divorce, Chris dies in a car crash. He wakes up in heaven. On earth Annie is unable to cope with her husband’s death. She eventually commits suicide. Chris learns that those who commit suicide go to hell, not as a result of judgement made against them, but because it is their nature to create a nightmare afterlife. “Suicidals” are driven by their pain. But, Chris insists he can rescue Annie from hell, even though he is warned it has never been done. He leaves heaven and journeys to the lowest pit of hell to find her. When he finds Annie, he only has moments. If he cannot pull her out of hell, she will pull him in. He decides to sacrifice everything for her, even if it means taking on her pain forever. His sacrificial love breaks through her amnesia and her hopelessness. Annie is rescued from hell. The movie’s message is that hope and love can defeat even the darkest despair and pain.
As an actor Robin Williams often represented unconquerable hope.
William’s suicide was a gut-check that knocked the wind out of me. But it has also served a vital purpose. It compelled me to examine and then re-examine my foundations and ask myself. “What am I resting my hope upon?” Surprisingly that’s an easy question to ignore. It’s easy to deceive ourselves because our conscious answer may not be our most honest answer.
Jesus says it is the key question to answer. In his most famous sermon Jesus says,
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who builds his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat against that house, and if fell, and great was its fall.” Matthew 7:24-27
Houses built on sand hold up fine under blue skies but we need a foundation for our hope capable of enduring all of life’s storms. Our hope must rest on a rock-solid foundation that will endure — abandonment, abuse, autism, betrayal, cancer, car crashes, denied promotions, disability, divorce, dying children, infertility, financial ruin, job loss, heart disease, mental illness . . . even death.
If we have any common sense we know this hope cannot ultimately rest on us. As merely human creatures, we are made of dust. We are not rock solid. Robin Williams reminded me of that simple yet forgettable truth. He was an amazing man. But, no matter how accomplished we are in life — no matter how experienced or clever we are at dealing with life’s darker side, we are but sand. When life’s storms come, our houses will fall. So we must look outside ourselves to someone infinitely more accomplished and experienced and clever. We must look to God himself.
Robin Williams could never have lived up to all the heroic characters he portrayed on the big screen. However, when I realized those characters reflect a real life giant; my confidence returned. In What Dreams May Come I recognized the real hero implied by the writers when I noted that Chris is a nickname for Christopher (‘image of Christ’). As the Apostle’s creed proclaims, Jesus Christ is the one who actually left heaven and entered hell to win back his lost bride and give her living hope
Tested by hell, this hope remains. It’s the only foundation that will never crumble — no matter the storm.