The Robin Williams Effect: Or, Why We Don’t See Problems Until It’s Too Late

As my news feed blew up on Monday night, I too was shocked and saddened by the story. But I couldn’t help but think of an interesting consideration based on one recurring comment. Here it is: “he was the last person I’d think would commit suicide!” For some reason we couldn’t help see the charming funnyman that many of us grew up watching as above the challenge of depression. We’d assumed that a wealthy A-list celebrity wouldn’t be hit by the emptiness that should be reserved for those who struggle to make ends meet or who’ve failed at life. But we were wrong.

Are there others?

And this hasn’t been the only time. We’ve also seen people with thousands of Facebook friends struggling with massive insecurities leading to suicide, the committed father who is struggling with sexual activity which threatens his marriage, the beautiful young woman who struggles with body image issues, the respected businessman who is embezzling from his company, or the pastor who is addicted to porn. These are some huge problems that we’ve often overlooked. Have you ever wondered what a difference it would make if we started plugging in and creating an environment where we could catch these kinds of problems before lives are ruined?

Why do we miss it?

I tend to think that we overlook huge problems and needs in others’ lives because we’re obsessed with impersonal and surface-level observations about people. We draw conclusions about others based on their persona in the media or on social media. We say “hi” to our coworker on the way into work or exchange pleasantries with a fellow church member, and assume that everything is okay.
“Comedy is acting out optimism.” – Robin Williams
Another issue is that when people finally open up to us about their problems, we tend to react poorly. Sometimes we treat people like they’re weak and can’t handle what they should be able to (i.e., what we can). Other times we treat people like they’re deserving of what they’re going through because of some fault of their own (i.e., that we haven’t done). Both of these responses lack grace. For by grace we can handle what we do and by grace we don’t get what we deserve. By approaching peoples’ problems this way, we take the grace of God for granted, all the while expecting others to try harder to earn it.

Can we reverse this trend?

We obviously can’t go deeper into the lives of celebrities (unless TMZ counts), but maybe we can do a better job reaching into the lives of those around us.
  1. One thing we can do is to change up the circumstances in which we interact with others. If you’re ready to get involved in the life of a coworker, invite them to an event outside of the workplace. Catch up with a fellow church member outside of church. Get your wife out of the house — date night! Take your son on an outdoor adventure. This all seems obvious, but how often do we really do this?
  2. As you engage with others, do it with grace. Always look for evidences of grace in their lives. We can always sit there an poke holes in people; if you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of failures in these things called “humans.” So we have to make a concerted effort to find peoples’ gifts and encourage those. Only when we approach people from a spirit of love, which believes and hopes for the best in all things, will we be ready to truly help the hurting.
  3. Another thing you can do is learn how to ask real questions. Now that you’re outside of a context where surface level interactions occur, start asking non-surface level questions. What has God been teaching you lately? Is there something I can be praying for you about? Where do you see yourself/your family in the next 5 years? What have you been reading recently?
  4. When people start talking, avoid the tendency to just check-out or think about what you’re going to say next. Follow the ebb and flow of the conversation, but be making mental notes about the areas where you can show the love of Christ to them. Don’t be afraid of the messiness and challenge of getting involved. Don’t fear the long road to recovery. Be a patient servant to those in need. Don’t just tell people that you’ll pray about this or that need; do something to meet that need if it lies within your ability.
  5. Lastly, close the loop. Continue to interact with your new-found friend online and in other out of the ordinary ways. Continue to share ways that God is growing you. Continue to pray for them and ask for updates on their requests. Continue to share your hopes and dreams. Share what you’re reading and how it’s impacting your thinking. Do something special for them and/or their family.

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