The Tao of Robin Williams

(Robin Williams | Dead Poets Society)

(Robin Williams | Dead Poets Society)

"Seize the day. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Out of the exceptional works of Robin Williams (1951 – 2014), three performances stand out as ways for us to live more examined lives.

The Wisdom of Innocence

Rather than in print, one of my favorite short stories first appeared in a remarkable film, The Fisher King. In the 1991 film, written by Richard LaGravenese and directed by Terry Gilliam, Robin Williams tenderly delivers the Arthurian legend of the "Fisher King."

Fisher King

It begins with the king as a boy... having to sleep alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. While he’s spending the night alone, he’s visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the Holy Grail — symbol of God’s divine grace. A voice said to him, ‘You shall be keeper of the Grail so that it may heal the hearts of men.’

But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement, he felt for a brief moment, not like a boy but invincible — like God. So he reached in the fire to take the Grail, and the Grail vanished leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded.

Now, as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any men, not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die.

One day, a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple-minded. He didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, ‘What ails you, friend?’

And the king replied, ‘I’m thirsty, and I need some water to cool my throat.’

So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. And as the king began to drink he realized his wound was healed. He looked, and there was the Holy Grail that which he sought all of his life.

He turned to the fool and said, ‘How could you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?’

The fool replied, ‘I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.’

A pure child is called innocent, yet as an adult, we label him a fool. We mistake his vulnerability for foolishness, which is unfortunate because there is wisdom to innocence. We complicate the world with ambition and desire, but innocence cuts through to "what ails you."

What is it that we ultimately we need? We mistake vehicles of happiness for happiness. And perhaps it's not achievement, money, or power, but rather, friendship, happiness, and love. After all, why did we originally pursue glory? We believed it was a way to become happy. And somewhere along the way we forgot and got burned by the quest. And perhaps the "fools," who see friends rather than adversaries, who do not care about achievement, exist to remind us of what life is about — of what life has always been about.

Crossing the Threshold

In the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and directed by Gus Van Sant, Robin Williams plays Dr. Sean Maguire, a therapist to self-taught genius Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon. Hunting, having had a traumatic upbringing, handicaps himself from new life experiences out of fear of more emotional pain. Rather than exposing himself, Hunting deflects and masks himself behind sarcastic quips and intellectual knowledge. Maguire challenges Hunting to drop his defensive mechanisms and open up — and to do that Maguire must allow himself to be vulnerable, first.

Good Will Hunting

So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling — seen that.

If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war; you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “Once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help.

I’d ask you about love; you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you, who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss because it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.

And look at you… I don’t see an intelligent, confident man… I see a cocky, scared, shitless kid. But you’re a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart. You’re an orphan right? … You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally, I don’t give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some fucking book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.

How much do we stand in our own way because of fear of vulnerability? Like the boy-king, Hunting "had no faith in any men, not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience." Without vulnerability, there is no courage, and without courage, we will never cross the threshold.

No amount of intellectual knowledge can replace experience. A life without experience is absent of sickness because it is absent of living. What a shame, then, to miss out on the joy of living. It's a risky proposition, living, but it's one worth the risk, even when it stings.

Carpe Diem

In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, written by Tom Schulman and directed by Peter Weir, Robin Williams plays John Keating, an English teacher at an all-male, elite prep school. Through the works of "dead poets," Keating inspires his students to live — and to know what it means to be alive.

Dead Poets Society

They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? Carpe — hear it? Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day, boys, make your lives extraordinary.

Let us live. Let us fulfill our capacities. "Seize the day. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may" — with courage, vulnerability, and the purity of a fool who is willing to ask the world, "What ails you, friend?"

(If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting this site.)