The Life Lessons I Learned from Robin Williams

Yesterday, like that of many, ended on a somber note with news of Robin Williams’ passing.

As I continue to age, I’ve found it useful to take greater pause in these moments, in this case to reflect on the impact that this great man had on my life. While I realize that far more informed fans and film critics will write more insightful, poetic tributes to Williams, I’d like to add my own rough perspective to the collective dialogue. You see, the more time I allow myself to think about it, the more I realize how significant his films were at instilling key life lessons in ways that because of Williams and who he was, always stuck with me.

Williams was one of those actors that bridged generations. Being a boomer himself, he spoke directly to my parents, connecting with them through the formative subject matter of their day. No performance embodied that quite like his role in Good Morning, Vietnam, which in many ways brought the Vietnam War into the range of acceptable conversation. Even in the late 80’s when the film was released, it was still a topic that most felt uncomfortable discussing publicly. Williams’ unmatched blend of theatrical humor and wisdom was just the answer for bringing the topic back into the fold.

Dead Poets Society, which people my age didn’t see until many years after its release taught me about what it means to become an individual, and what it means to connect with the things that feed the soul, and how love and pain are often inseparable forces.

Then came Hook. Perhaps the Avatar of the 90’s? Williams and Dustin Hoffman formed what may very well have been the greatest protagonist/antagonist duo EVER. The costumes were unmatched. Yet the larger message behind the Peter Pan story stood confidently in the background, reminding parents and children alike that life changes us in many ways, but if we are mindful, it need not steal our sense of wonder, curiosity and playfulness. I cannot think of a lesson I hold more dear to my heart today. BANGARANG Peter!

FernGully, where Williams played the voice of a rapping bat named Batty, teaching youngsters like myself (I was 7 at the time of its release) about the fragility of our planet. Again, infusing his humor into an issue to ensure that it is internalized by people of all ages.

Then there was Mrs. Doubtfire. Mrs. Doubtfire may have been the most significant. It was one of only handful of VHS tapes that my family owned, which meant it was watched countless times. Growing up on a healthy dose of Disney films, even as a kid I knew what to expect with my endings: everyone (except the villain) lives happily ever after. But, this movie was different. It taught kids that the world isn’t black or white. That happiness can come with a dose of sadness. Even more, it taught me that there is no ending at all, there is only change and that it is how we respond to these changes that shape our reality, and the quality of our lives.

Which brings me to Good Will Hunting. This film has only grown in importance for me over the years. In a Psychology of Personality class I took in college our professor used this film and its characters as a means of examining the various personality types classified by the field. It was an incredibly useful exercise as each of the characters in the film possessed so many different layers. But, the movie was much more than that. It was poetic in how it brought to life the age old Tennyson line, “Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

And, I guess that’s how I feel about my relationship to Williams’ work. His death is a tragedy, but he lives on through every one of his characters and the lessons that they so effectively instilled with viewers. Robin Williams is testament to a life lived passionately, “because to live…to live would be an awfully big adventure.” And, it has been and will continue to be, due in some small part, to the moments I have shared with Robin Williams.


Weekend Wisdom


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