Death of an Icon

I grew up watching Mork. I’ve seen Aladdin. I even, during college, watched him perform live. But I never knew Robin Williams.

He was the consummate entertainer. He just knew how to make us laugh. His improvisation, his off-the-cuff remarks, were brilliantly funny. But we never understood who he really was.

And that was, perhaps, the problem, that which made him so depressed as to bring him to a tragic end.

With his passing, journalists and commentators are talking about mental illness and depression, recognizing the challenges he faced. [UPDATE: And let me make it clear that I am not commenting about most cases, or even necessarily his case, of mental illness or depression. A person with either must seek professional treatment and it is a Mitzvah to do so.]

But I don’t believe that Williams simply had a mental illness. Few are discussing how common depression seems to be among the leading entertainers — or why this is so. While I could of course be wrong in this one case, it is hard to imagine that so many entertainers, upon finding success, coincidentally develop depression.

Someone challenged me, asking whether it is true that so many entertainers are depressed, so I did a little research. I looked up Rolling Stone’s list of the top 500 albums, and found that nine of the top ten artists (those with the most albums on the list) had a drug problem (Bruce Springsteen being the exception). So did all five of IMDb’s top five actors (that’s where I stopped looking, though #6, Dustin Hoffman, did as well). Sports figures, of course, must stay in shape, but even there you find one drug scandal after the next. And what are drugs? Escape from the plain, real, often-depressing world.

[UPDATE: Someone sent me the link to comedian Jim Horton’s article about Williams. In it he writes: “So many comics I know seem to struggle with the demons of self-hatred and self-destruction… In the 25 years I’ve been doing stand-up, I’ve personally known at least eight comedians who committed suicide.”]

I’m not aware of any other industry whose top practitioners are so likely to have trouble with drugs, alcohol, broken marriages, other self-destructive behaviors, and of course suicide… as entertainment. Not politicians, not the military, not any other profession or (legal) blue-collar field. In order to find a similar level of prevalence, one must look at drug dealers or prostitutes.

Isn’t something wrong with this picture? The entertainment industry is supposed to be about making us happy; entertainers are sharing happiness with us. Yet behind the scenes, they seem to need to escape. Either temporarily by getting drunk or high, or all too often permanently, whether via overdose or deliberate action.

The answer, I believe, is that what I said above is not really true. Entertainers are not sharing happiness, they are acting. Comedians practice their art and make people laugh… and then go home, where life isn’t funny. They aren’t creating something real, or (usually) making a lasting difference in someone’s life, so the feelings of accomplishment are similarly transient. Thus the need to escape.

True happiness is not found via entertainment. Happiness is tied to attainment, to achievement, especially to attaining completion as a person. The Vilna Gaon says on Megillas Esther (8:16) that in this world, Simcha, happiness, precedes Sasson, joy. “Happiness is moving forward to reach an objective in happiness, and joy is afterwards, when one has already achieved the objective and feels joy in his heart.”

Happiness is not a casual thing, it doesn’t just happen, it is something that one can pursue and develop. This is why Chazal say “it is a great Mitzvah to always be happy” — it’s something we can cultivate.

This statement also teaches us that happiness is not a state of laughing delight. Rav Alexander Mandelbaum, in his “V’hayisa Ach Samayach” (“and you shall only be happy”), speaks about two types of happiness considered by Chazal — happiness with one’s lot, and happiness in performance of Mitzvos. Happiness with one’s lot is developed by considering that G-d gives each individual precisely what that person needs — so he or she, even in a difficult situation, should be happy with the understanding that HaShem saw that the difficult situation would prove to be of ultimate benefit. That sort of happiness doesn’t “just happen.”

One does not always feel Sasson, joy. But it is a Mitzvah to always be happy — even on Tisha B’Av, even during Shivah. How can this be? We can comprehend this by understanding Simchah as a feeling of moving happily in the right direction, pursuing a goal. That is something that can remain with a person even during times of grief and pain.

That is real happiness. Unfortunately, the purveyors of what the modern world calls “happiness” — the entertainers — realize within themselves, either consciously or subconsciously, that they have not found and are not providing true happiness.

What makes this especially sad is that now that he is gone, the stories are emerging of Robin Williams, the humanitarian, who visited hospitals on Dec. 25 to give presents to all the children. When he met the doctors and nurses who had spent their holiday stabilizing a premature baby, he teared up — recognizing people whose efforts were real and transformative. Perhaps he didn’t realize that yes, you can make others happy, you can give people something lasting, just with a smile — and even a joke or two, which Robin Williams had in abundance.

Yes, it’s sad that he went, and it’s sad that he was so sad — he could have been so happy.

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10 Responses

  1. AMuschel says:

    Nice post and nice thought.
    I have to respectfully disagree with one word:
    “…it is hard to imagine that so many entertainers, upon finding success, coincidentally DEVELOP depression.”
    This assumes that after they succeed, they become depressed. It seems just as reasonable to believe that they enter the profession already depressed, and in cases like Williams, use comedy as an attempt to combat their depression.

    See, for example,

  2. Nachum says:

    And yet Eliyahu HaNavi (via Chazal) tells us that comedians are the first in line for Olam HaBa. Clearly they’re doing something right…

    On the other hand, Cracked Magazine (essentially run by people who make jokes professionally, so they know what of they speak) ran a long piece yesterday pointing out that those prone to depression are more likely to get into comedy, sort of the opposite of what you suggest. Indeed, your line about “developing” depression is way off- people are born prone to depression; it’s a brain chemistry thing, not a psychological one. That’s why medication can help.

    Incidentally, I don’t think there are any grave prohibitions to writing what December 25th is, and certainly not to writing the name of the month in full.

  3. Baruch says:

    Yasher koach.

    בעניותי I would just add that a stable and fulfilling family life is a big part of general happiness and contentment, and many celebrities lead a lifestyle that is simply incompatible with a stable family life, and hence they do not feel happy.

  4. joel rich says:

    1. Most importantly (as I was maspid imi morati hk”m who was always happy) true happiness (simcha) per R’YBS comes from being lfnei Hashem (in the presence of the almighty) as we are meant to be on the shalosh regaloi (3 festivals) in Yerushalayim. It comes from knowing HKB”H is in charge of the world and even if we don’t feel it at the moment, we need to try to be subliminally (at least) aware of the fact.

    2. The question of cause and effect in the enrtertainment industry lifestyle is interesting-which comes first and is there a genetic component

    3. There needs to be more awareness about Suicide rates for white males of all kinds in the 45-65 age bracket (ouch that’s me)
    Per the WSJ:Suicide rates for adults aged 45 to 64 rose 40% from 1999 through 2011,according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The suicide rate for these middle- to late-middle-aged adults is higher than any other age group, including youth and the elderly, according to an analysis by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.


  5. Cvmay says:

    Well researched article with timely message.

    For example, two popular, successful and loved actors, Paul Newman & Robert Redford were always known as icons of Chesed. Besides having stable family relationships, they engaged in charities, helping the unfortunate & encouraging their fellow performers to do the same.

    Fulfillment of joy can never be sustained through self-indulging behaviors without doing, connecting & empathizing with others.

  6. CNS says:

    A large part of the internal turmoil that fed my bouts with depression was being disillusioned that a frum life of Torah and mItzvos (imperfectly performed, but still) did not inoculate me from what Churchill called “the black dog.” Initially I thought this was something that only impacted those who lived outside a time-tested purpose-driven framework. It took me a very long time to get over this. I have come to the view that you can be a true yareh shomayim, doing everything more or less right and still suffer from depression.

  7. gregory alibert says:

    Most of the time, i don’t agree with you. But this time, i would like to give you an accolade or shake your hand. Your post is beautiful. Robin Williams was a human being, fragile but full of love for others. His humour was his armor to hide his sadness. From what i learn , his relation with his father was almost non existant. He was scared of him.
    Those traumas, this sadness of life is almost present in the religious jewish world. But here too, we hide them, afraid of what the neighbors would say, fear of not getting a shidduch, shame for the family if you acknowledge that we are going to a therapist. But disease of the soul are real as disease of the body. As for the latter we are going to the doctor, what is wrong to go to the therapist for the former. The Rambam didn’t see any difference between both. The gemara in Brachos נז amud ב, if I’m not mistaken, says that if a person is down , meaning depressed, he needs three things to see (beautiful things), to hear(music) and to smell( flowers, spices). Why aren’t we ashamed to say that we had a cold but we are when it comes about mental issues? From someone who was there and got out, baruch Hashem.

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    If you wish to see how the various ups and downs of the human condition are dealt with, there is no better place than beginning with an in depth study of Tehilim, Mishlei, and Koheles.

  9. lacosta says:

    to CNS—
    clinical endogenous depression , is not dependent on one’s religious background , and generally requires not a rabbi , but a mental health professional who can prescribe the right medicine–and as you probably know, some patients struggle a lifetime and STILL never find a med that does the trick….

  10. Nachum Klafter says:

    I think that there is an important link between the arts and mental illness that should be considered. For a great many artists – and this includes painters, sculptors, composers, musicians, comics, writers, and actors – art is an important coping mechanism for severe mental pain. The creative mind is, in a great many cases, a regressed mind. The mind that can see connections between things that ordinary or normal people cant is, in many cases, a mind which is unbounded or less bounded that most of ours. Therefore, the reason that there is a high rate of mental illness and substance abuse in the world of entertainment is becuase musicians, writers, comics, and actors are artists and their minds don’t function like most of ours do in the first place. There are other realms were brilliance seems to be corelated with psychological problems. New research shows that there is a definite link between genius and autism, for example. Therefore, I think that the high preponderence between mental disorders among the most talented performers is because it is precisely those psychological problems which propel many people into the arts.

    Nachum Klafter, MD
    Cincinnati OH

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