You’re probably too young to understand this, but then again what do I know? I don’t remember what it was like to be 1 5/6 year old. I bet you know more than I think you do.
Last night when I got home I had a text message from Aunt K. Here’s how it started: “I have some bad news. You may want to sit down.” (That is a terrible way to begin a text message, by the way.) Because the internet has made it impossible for me to savor words anymore (that’s what They’re saying anyway), I automatically took in the words in their entirety in one instant.
There was no time to sit down. (Thanks, Internet.)
Here is what the message read: “I have some bad news. You may want to sit down. Apparently Robin Williams killed himself.”
I did, indeed, need to sit down.
And I can only assume what you’re thinking. “Mom, I don’t even know who that is. He’s not in our family. He’s not our friend, right? Why does it matter?” And that is an excellent question, especially for a 1 5/6 year old. And honestly, I’m having a hard time answering it. Many people have been trying to answer that question today. Some say it’s because he touched so many lives through his unsurpassed television and film career. Others say it’s because so many were inspired by his comedic and improvisational genius. Still others talk about how it’s the suicide that is so devastating—and point to the need to de-stigmatize mental illness and put more resources into its study and treatment.
These are all true. And, as you’ll learn, this is not an original story. Pop icons, great creative minds, and transcendent artists die. Too many times in tragic ways resulting from depression, addiction, and other mental diseases. And society mourns. And we naively think, “How could someone loved by so many want to die or numb out to the point of death?”
I thought this today.
And I thought about the times in my own struggle with mental illness that I have just known that if I did something important, if I were recognized for something wonderful that touched thousands of lives, I would be happy. I would finally be happy. But then these deaths betray the utter fallacy of that logic. It’s a false conditional. (I’ll teach you more about logic someday, NK.)
I’ve learned that often when logic fails, you have to tell a story. So I’m going to tell you a story.
Once upon a time there was a knight of King Arthur named Percival. He wandered around the land doing all that knights did and one day came upon a place called The Wild Mountain. The king there was known as Amfortas, or, The Fisher King. Legend tells us that God had charged The King to protect The Holy Grail. The King, however, had been terribly wounded. The Grail had wondrous powers that sustained the life of The King, but just. Percival marveled the Grail’s powers, but was quickly thrown out by a page screaming, “Damn you!! You did not ask The Question!!”
The Court disgraced Percival. His entire family was disgraced. (NK, don’t worry. I will love you and stand by you even when you make mistakes.)
After a long time Percival stumbled upon The Wild Mountain again. He found it just as it had been when he was younger. The King still suffered, but even the magic of the Grail could not heal him. But this time, at once, upon seeing the King, Percival asks, “What ails thee?” (That’s a fancy way of saying, “What are you going through?”)
That was the right question.
The King rested and Percival became the new guardian of the Grail. And so the legend goes, the true owner of the Holy Grail is the one pays attention to the suffering of others. THE END.
This story is actually much longer and this is only one iteration. (I promise I’ll share more with you when you get a little older.) In fact, one iteration is none other than the Robin Williams movie, The Fisher King. (We’ll watch that later too.) The movie, a modern retelling, teaches the same lesson. Happiness, meaning, magic, “the Grail,” can only be possessed by she who pays attention to the suffering of others.
Recently, I’ve been re-reading an essay by Simone Weil, a 20th century French philosopher and political activist. The essay is titled, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” In this writing, Weil makes the case for paying attention. In fact, she believes that our everyday tasks require the utmost attention because they train us to be able to pay better attention to each other. She writes, “Every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing her grasp of truth, she acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if her effort produces no visible fruit.”
She likes to use geometry problems as an example (I’ll teach you about geometry later, too). She says that even if math problems are absolutely loathsome, pay attention. It doesn’t even matter that at the end of the effort you don’t have the solution or understand the proof. What matters is the genuine effort of the attention. It’s never wasted because it makes you better at paying attention.
This is crucial, right? Our story just revealed the Truth. A Truth that often logic can’t uncover. Happiness, meaning, magic, “the Grail,” can only be possessed by she who pays attention to the suffering of others.
Weil continues with these powerful words: “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing. It is almost a miracle. It is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.”
And, my dear daughter, I think this is all that I can tell you on the day after Robin Williams suicide. Pay attention. Remind me to pay attention. Let’s practice paying attention. So many suffer around us and, like Percival, we keep failing to ask the right question.
“What are you going through?”
We cannot possess the Grail without paying attention to each other.
We cannot survive without paying attention to each other.
(P.S. – I’ve been meaning to start a blog for a very long time. I’m glad I got to start it with you.)