I opened up my Facebook today to find out that Robin Williams has died, probably by his own hand, probably after losing a fight with his own demons of depression and addiction.
I found two things odd about this.
First, that so many people were expressing actual sorrow, saying that they wanted to cry, that they were personally grieved and felt personal loss. Only one of them - Lisa Jakub - actually met Williams personally, worked with him, and has lost someone she knew and loved. But I'm fairly sure that my friends Chris and Carrie and all the other friends posting messages of loss didn't know him other than as an image on a screen. I'm not saying that they didn't care, in the same way that I care about favorite places, or beloved stories or music, or about people in distant lands in a sort of abstract way that I don't want bad things to happen to anyone outside the Cheney family.
And, second, hard after that was that I didn't, not really, not about Robin Williams, and I immediately felt like a heel; everybody else is posting sadz about the man's death and my only thought as I read it was "Hunh. How 'bout that..?" like I was reading about a water main break on Burnside or a traffic tie-up on I-5 South.
Then I thought, y'know, I don't know the poor guy. I know him as "Mork" or his other pixel images on a screen, so essentially he's as "real" to me as Oscar the Grouch or the Wizard of Oz. I don't have any particular connection or bigger emotional investment in the man's death - or life - than I do in the water main break or the traffic tie-up. For me they're all just "news".
I think I've talked about this bizarre aspect of electronic media and celebrity culture before. We "know" all sorts of people from television and films that we don't really "know" in any sort of real sense. We may feel like Robin Williams' films, or part of his work, or just what we think of as his personality were important parts of our lives. But what did we really know of Mr. Williams? Of what he loved, of what he hated and feared, what made him happy or sad, why he did what he did and was who he was.
It may seem like we "knew" him, though, because his image was as recognizable as those of our own family.
So it still seems odd to me. Was this man a part of our lives, as much a part as any other friend? Enough so that his loss is grievous to us? Is an emotion based on a created intimacy as genuine as one from an intimacy that springs from artless Nature?
Joseph Stalin once said "One death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic"?
Perhaps one death is, too.
Or perhaps it isn't.