Why the Suicide of Robin Williams Matters

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Actor/comedian Robin Williams just committed suicide.

Truthfully, I’m stunned, shocked, and devastated. I had heard that he struggled with depression, and had always looked to him as an example—someone to help me move forward as I battle my own depression.

His humor brought happiness and hope to so many people. And now…

I don’t know. Part of me just wants to yell and shake my fist. Why did you do that, Robin?! You were loved by so many people. You were an inspiration to millions! You should’ve asked more people for help! Others would’ve rushed to your aid to lift you up. So many people believed in you and loved you!

But there’s another part of me—a quieter part—that tells me it is not my place to judge. Depression and suicidal thoughts are so subtle and insidious that they can take down anyone—even (perhaps especially) the happiest of people.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts and feelings, please try to see your experience through the conversation now surrounding Robin Williams. Clearly, he was a funny, beloved, and inspirational man. But because of what he was going through it became difficult for him to see that. Depression and suicidal thoughts darken our world and sometimes make us feel like suicide is the only escape.

Please know that there is hope. While it’s extremely difficult to fight depression with thought power or “positive thinking,” I hope you can recognize that you are loved by so many people! You never know who you are inspiring. If you feel like you’re drowning in depression, please ask other people for help! Help will come, I promise. So many people believe in you and love you.

This is your life. It is precious and beautiful. Don’t take your life—live your life! Seize the day.

In a statement recently released by Susan Schneider, (his wife) said this: “On behalf of Robin’s family, we are asking for privacy during our time of profound grief. As he is remembered, it is our hope that the focus will not be on Robin’s death but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

I couldn’t agree more. Let us honor Robin Williams by focusing on the profoundly amazing and wonderful life he lived! He had a deep struggle and he fought a good, noble fight (and made the world a better, happier place in the process). As one of my friends on Facebook put it: we should “Commend him for all the days he did win that fight.”

Thanks for all the laughter and the inspiration, Robin. And thank you for fighting for so long. You are a true hero and will be sorely missed.

**UPDATE – This article was originally titled: “Why I’m Angry at Robin Williams.” After one of my readers pointed out that this might be perceived as negative or sensationalist, I changed it. My thoughts, prayers, and heartfelt sympathies go out to anyone who is struggling to cope with suicide.

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Why Ebola WON’T Make Me Sick

Ebola

The Ebola Virus

There’s been a lot of talk about the deadly Ebola virus that is currently ravaging West Africa. Social media is on fire, filled with millions of comments and concerns that the disease will spread to other parts of the world.

I, for the most part, am concerned…but undeterred. I refuse to make myself sick over Ebola or any other “impending doom.” I resolved, long ago, to be hopeful instead of fearful.

This resolution stems from a campfire conversation I had with some friends. It was 2010, and we were talking about how the world might come to an end in December 2012. We talked about how it might happen, what it might look like, and how we would respond. Some of the guys even expressed anger at the thought that their lives might be cut short.

Our apocalyptic, doom-and-gloom conversation became pretty heated as we debated what we would do in our final hours. It was then that one of my friends—who had not said a word since the conversation began—finally spoke up:

“I don’t think I would mind if the world came to an end,” he said, quietly poking the fire.

We stared at him in shock. “How can you say that?” someone asked.

My friend shrugged. “We’re all going to die sometime, right? We all know that. What we don’t know is how we’ll die or when we’ll die. So many people waste what little time they have thinking about how they’ll die and when they’ll die that they never really think about why they live. If you live a good life full of service then you don’t need to be fearful about how you’ll die and when you’ll die. You’ll be ready.”

A silence fell over the campfire and gradually, the conversation shifted towards inspirational thoughts we had had while hiking—things we’d like to change and people we’d like to visit. One of the guys resolved to forgive his father while another decided he was finally going to ask his long-time girlfriend to marry him.

Does the Ebola virus concern me? Yes, it does. You know what else concerns me? America’s current conflict with Russia, violence in the Middle-East, and overwhelming political corruption.

But you know what? There will always be something to worry about. We have a limited lease on life and it’s riddled with risk. So much of what happens to us is outside of our ability to control. We don’t know when we’ll die or how we die, but we can decide how to live and when to start.

In the midst of such terrible, fearful things, decide right now to live a good life full of service. Once you decide that, then you don’t need to be fearful about how you’ll die or when you’ll die. You’ll be ready. So roll up your sleeves and get to work! Don’t burry your head in the sand. Instead, labor to understand the diseases, conflicts, and issues of the world and seek to alleviate some of the pain, suffering, and misunderstanding. Do your best to be aware and serve others.

And what’s more, your knowledge, faith, goodness and service will undoubtedly make this darkened world a better place.

(For more information about Ebola, please read “Ten Things You Really Should Know About Ebola“)

I’m Grateful For Paper Cuts

Life Is Beautiful

Some time ago, I was asked by Nate Bagley (of Loveumentary.com) to participate in a Gratitude Challenge. As part of this challenge, I was asked to share a personal experience where gratitude had an impact on me and to share how I practice gratitude in my life.

It may sound strange to you but I’m grateful for paper cuts.

Actually, I’m grateful for one particular paper cut…

It was in the spring of 2007, and I was traveling with my parents through New England. As a family, we had recently closed a very dark and wintry chapter in our lives and were eager to move forward. The surrounding countryside, positively satiated in springtime flowers, painted the promise of a new beginning.

While visiting a religious building, I fumbled with some informational brochures and accidentally gave myself a paper cut. The sting prompted a word that was—ah—shall we say…inappropriate for the location? (It was a swear word.)

As I covered my finger with a tissue, I was suddenly (and inexplicably) overwhelmed with gratitude—gratitude to be alive.

Six months earlier, I had tried to take my life. In fact, I would have succeeded had my dad not found me and taken me to the hospital. In the weeks leading up to my attempt, I remember one constant feeling: numbness. My entire world had been drained of color and energy. I felt so hollow, so void, and so dead that taking my life seemed like the only escape.

But in the months and years that have followed my suicide attempt, my family and friends rallied around me, offering me support, encouragement, and love. On one of those tedious nights immediately following my discharge from the hospital, I distinctly remember laying in my bed and being impressed with these words: “Seth, there are a lot of things in your life that have gone wrong. Yes, you’re in pain. And yes, you have a lot of problems. But there are also a lot of good things in your life—like family, friends, a warm bed, good food, and air to breath. You’ve spent the past couple of years focusing on all the bad things in your life—and look what it’s done to you. Maybe, instead of focusing so much on all of the bad things in your life, you could try to focus on some of the good things—because there are many.”

Since that time, I have tried, to the best of my ability, to focus on the positive instead of the negative. Yes, I still struggle with chronic depression—I don’t deny that. Yes, things go wrong and I still have bad days. But instead of focusing on what I lack, I focus on what I have. And that shift in focus has made all of the difference in the world. In a curious way, gratitude for life has actually expanded it. Every additional moment of my life, when coupled with gratitude, has only increased the joy and color of my life.

So as I stood there, clutching a throbbing paper cut, I was overcome with gratitude for that pain—because it meant that I was still alive. And later that day, while sitting on a couch with my parents, I reached across and put my hand on my dad’s arm.

“Dad,” I began. “I just wanted to thank you for saving my life.”

My dad gave me a somber look. “I’m grateful I did,” he said.

In our darkest moments, it’s hard to even think about gratitude. Sometimes, the difficulties of life have a tendency to pull us inward and downward. But I ask you to try and shift your focus outward and upward. Consider your blessings—they are many. Take it from a guy who once hated his life so much that he nearly ended it: life is a beautiful and precious gift.

Stop Hating Your Body: The Best Diet Ever!

I think I’ve stumbled across the greatest diet plan ever conceived…

Da Vinci

“Vitruvian Man” by Leonardo Da Vinci

In middle school, I was overweight — and several kids liked to point that out … and laugh about it. I remember coming home from school one day, going up into my room and crying on my bed.

When my mom asked me what was wrong, I told her what some of the kids had said. She did her best to comfort me, but it took me a long time to recover from that. I was painfully ashamed of my body, and resented the fact that I had to carry it around with me.

Woman MirrorSadly, my experience isn’t unique. We live in a culture that hates the body. Don’t believe me? Look around. We set unsustainable standards of physical beauty and enlist models to represent them. We then slather these models in oils and make-up, place them under “flattering” lights, and photoshop them into oblivion.

We take these deceptive images and publish them to the world, insinuating that these lies are not only desirable, but also “the norm.” Why don’t you look like this? Why aren’t you this beautiful?

Unable to attain this fictional and unrealistic level of beauty and perfection, we despise and destroy our own bodies. We do it in a number of ways. We either focus on our physical imperfections and try to starve them out, or beat them out through excessive exercise.

If that doesn’t work, then we try to numb our feelings of inadequacy through addictions that include sex, drugs, alcohol, perfectionism, gambling, gaming, overeating, working, cleaning, shopping, and sleeping.

Anyway you look at it, we are a culture that is very uncomfortable in its own skin. We value the judgement and scrutiny of others more than we value the marvelous creation that is our own body.

I recently read Learning From Leonardo, a remarkable book that takes an in-depth look at the sketches and notes of celebrated painter, Leonardo da Vinci. While reading the book, I was deeply impressed by Leonardo’s fascination with the human body. Skimming through his sketches, one can tell that Leonardo had a deep love and reverence for life. Indeed, Leonardo himself once said: “let not your rage or malice destroy a life — for indeed, he who does not value it, does not himself deserve it.”

Is the malice of our culture toward our bodies destroying our enjoyment of life? Does our rage and contempt for our own image destroy our happiness?

I’ve seen people waste their time and energy—the very essence of their lives—obsessed with body image and diet, or with weight-training and exercising, or with cankles and thigh gaps.

Your body wasn’t meant to be treated like an object for others to scrutinize—it was meant to be treasured as the most incredible and most advanced instrument that you have to receive the world. Life is so much more than what we see with our eyes, but we spend so much time focused on ourselves that we might as well be asleep. John Patrick Shanley wrote that “Only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.”

Do you remember when we were kids? (You know, before school and all of that nonsense.) We loved life. LOVED it! Every moment of life was an absolutely astounding adventure. Swimming? Amazing. Mixing colors? Amazing. Jumping into a pile of leaves? Amazing. Petting a dog? Amazing! Touching a bug? AMAZING!!

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo’s “Head of a Young Woman”

At that age, kids don’t care about what others think about them, and why should they? Nature is so amazing! And if the nature is so amazing—and their bodies come from nature—then what does that say about them? In fact, most children chase life with such zeal and energy that they never need worry about diet and exercise.

I think there is a direct correlation between our love of life and our love of self. I believe that the more we respect, value, and love life all around us, the more we will respect, value, and love ourselves (and our bodies). And the more we value ourselves and the world around us, the more we will be able to achieve.

Leonardo da Vinci is a phenomenal example of this. The man loved life! His never-ending fascination with life was both childlike and genius. As a direct result of his love for life, the things he was able to accomplish with his own life are breath-taking. He was a painter, a sculptor, an inventor, an architect, a cartographer, a botanist, a mathematician, an engineer, a geologist and so much more!

Yet in his quest to understand life, he learned this fundamental truth:

“…and if this, [body], appears to thee marvelously constructed, remember that it is nothing as compared with the soul that dwells in that structure; for that indeed, be it what it may, is a thing divine.”

Please stop hating your body. Not only is it an amazing tool for receiving the world, but it’s also the host of a thing divine—you. You are a marvelously beautiful and unique creation and you were born to achieve great things. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you will wake up to the glorious life that is all around you.

Singing After TWO Double-Lung Transplants

Charity Tillemann-Dick Performing

Charity Tillemann-Dick, an opera singer and the recipient of two double-lung transplants.

I have interviewed some pretty amazing people, but Charity Tillemann-Dick is quite possibly one of the most remarkable individuals I have ever interviewed…

Charity Tillemann-Dick is an accomplished speaker, presenter, and soprano singer. She has performed in prestigious concert halls across Europe, Asia, and America in front of celebrities, presidents, and world dignitaries.

In 2004, Charity was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary hypertension, a rare condition that causes the arteries in the lungs to harden, forcing the heart to work harder and harder to pump blood throughout the body. Left untreated, Charity was not expected to live longer than five years. But since her diagnosis, Charity has received two double lung transplants and continues to speak, sing and perform across the country.

After interviewing her for about an hour, I wish that it was within my power to write and share everything that she said. Not only is she a really fast talker, but she’s also filled with incredible wisdom (seriously! I took three pages of notes)!

During the interview, I asked her about her reaction to her diagnosis, the highlights of her career, the album she just released, and her plans for the future.

I then asked her what she would say to someone who is struggling to move forward. Her response was poetic profundity:

“Loving ourselves and forgiving ourselves is so important because it allows us to love other people more effectively—love is the only way we can hear the narrative melody that is surrounded by a cacophony of noise and pain.”

Charity's album, "American Grace." Click on the picture to order a copy!

Charity’s album, “American Grace.” Click on the picture to order a copy!

In my notes, I had originally misheard her and written “the musical melody.” When I read the quote back to her she corrected me and said, “No, ‘the narrative melody.'” We then talked about the differences between the two. From our conversation, I learned that life isn’t always a happy, musical tune—it’s a narrative melody. Put another way, life isn’t trying to entertain us, it’s trying to teach us.

Although Charity’s journey forward has been extremely difficult—filled with trials, tears, and numerous near-death experiences—she’s determined to hear the narrative melody of life: “It’s hard,” she said. “But there’s exquisite beauty along the way—it’s our responsibility to open our eyes and ears to it.”

Each and every moment of our lives is a note from the divine melody. It’s up to us to be still and find the meaning in those notes—the narrative in that melody. Charity not only hears and understands the music, but she’s determined to make it: “I’m just so excited to make more music,” she said. “And I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m still here.”

Right now, Charity and her husband are working hard to make her new album a bestseller on Billboard. I strongly, strongly, strongly, strongly encourage you to visit her website and order a copy for yourself!

Now, after all I’ve said about listening to the narrative of life—listen to Charity sing!

A Personal Interview With the Grandson of Nelson Mandela

Janae Pettit, Kweku Mandela, and me.

Janae Pettit, Kweku Mandela, and me.

In January 2014, I had the INCREDIBLE opportunity to interview Kweku Mandela, the grandson of Nelson Mandela. In the first part of that interview (which I published in February), Kweku talked about the award-winning film, Beyond Right and Wrong, and how his “Granddad” dealt with conflict.

In this video, Kweku shares a personal, touching story of how his Granddad’s presidency affected him in his South African school. I must admit, I got a little teary during this part of the interview. Most of my work has taken me north—to places like Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Russia. As a result, I have a lot of personal connections to those lands.

But I believe this was the first time I had spoken with anyone who had personally experienced the fear, uncertainty, and pain of apartheid. It was a life-changing interview, to be sure.

Here is my favorite quote from Kweku:

“[Nelson Mandela] tried to…set an example—live to the best of his ability and hopefully make the world a better place. But he also realized that there was only so much he could do, you know?…He’s given us this gift. And I think it’s in our hands, ultimately—each and every one of us—to try just a little bit, right? To shine that on our communities.”

Beyond Right & Wrong follows victims of three devastating conflicts—the Rwandan Genocide, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland—as they struggle to forgive without sacrificing their need for justice. This film’s message is a vital part of the growing conversation around justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness between individuals, communities, and nations.

You can watch Beyond Right & Wrong FOR FREE by clicking on this link.

Benjamin Franklin’s Priceless Penny

The front of the Fugio Cent, "Mind Your Business."

The front of the Fugio Cent, “Mind Your Business.”

A penny isn’t worth much these days. In fact, if you find one on the street, it’s hardly worth the energy of bending over to pick it up. But I recently stumbled across an old, American penny whose message and meaning is probably worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox.

In April of 1787, the Continental Congress approved the design of a new “United States” cent. This design—rich with symbolism—was created by none other than Benjamin Franklin.

The value of these cents was not from any monetary value that the Continental Congress placed upon them. No, the value of these cents was came from the sense of value that they gave to a fledgling America.

The design was both practical and profound. The front features a sun and a sundial with the words “Fugio” (a Latin phrase meaning, “I fly”) and “Mind Your Business.” It was a pictorial representation of the idea that time flies—so get to work!

While the design on the front features practical business advice, it is the design on the back that I find most meaningful. The back of the penny features an image of thirteen chain links in a circle, representing the original thirteen colonies. In the center of these links is the motto “We Are One.”

Back of Fugio Cent "We Are One."

Back of Fugio Cent “We Are One.”

Now, you might not think thats anything significant, but when understood in its context, this simple image carries profound wisdom for the ages.

In 1787, the thirteen original colonies had just emerged, battered and bruised, from a bloody war of independence. Despite their victory, the governments of each of the colonies were young and unstable and their economies were near collapse. The Continental Congress could hardly agree on anything. Meanwhile, England appeared to be biding its time—waiting for the moment when America’s adolescent experiment with independence would fail.

Given these conditions, it looked as though America’s revolutionary victory would, at any moment, be counted worthless and tossed aside in favor of its former dependency on England.

But within two years, something remarkable happened—something that changed everything—the colonies united once again. America embraced the message of the Constitution: “We the people…in order to form a more perfect union” are one,and after George Washington’s two terms as President (eight years), America’s previous problems essentially evaporated.

The common sense of Ben Franklin’s copper cents is simple, profound, yet incredibly difficult to live: when “We Are One”— when we are united—we prosper.

Statue of Ben Franklin

Statue of Ben Franklin

But what does that mean for us?  Are we as divided as America was then? Perhaps not to the same degree, but in times like these we must remember Mark Twain’s sage advice, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

We live in a time of perpetual war, civil unrest, and economic uncertainty. Solutions and prosperity will not be found in pinching pennies but by embracing the common sense on a copper cent: “We Are One.”

But how do we become one?  Well, the answer to that question is found on the other side of Ben Franklin’s penny: “Mind Your Business.” Does that sentiment mean to work harder or start your own business? Given Franklin’s propensity to create aphorisms, I think there’s a much deeper meaning involved.

This ‘deeper meaning’ is probably best described through an exchange in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Fearing for his own welfare, Scrooge tells the the ghost of Jacob Marley that he (Marley) “was always a good man of business,” the implication being that Scrooge’s equal successes in business would compensate for his lack of humanity. To this, his business partner replied:

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  “Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

The business we should mind, as a nation, should be the common welfare of all our citizens. The American experiment requires a unity that pervades every part of society: black, white, religious, non-religious, straight, gay, Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, Tea Partier, Occupier, the 1% and the 99%. I’m not suggesting that we have government-led initiatives aimed at helping these various groups of people. I’m suggesting that WE lead initiatives to help our fellow men. Because mankind is our business.

Just imagine what could happen if our nation lived as one, if we saw our happiness and prosperity inseparably linked together—as represented by the links on Ben Franklin’s copper cent. What if instead of judging the value of the citizens we meet as cents on the street, we see them as unique, and wonderful individuals that are worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox?

Imagine what could happen if we re-embraced one of Benjamin Franklin’s last contributions to our country, living the motto “We Are One.”

The deepest value of Ben Franklin’s copper cents—a people united—is of inestimable worth.

The grave of Benjamin Franklin—covered in pennies.

The grave of Benjamin Franklin—covered in pennies.

I Don’t Subscribe To Fear

In the wake of recent headlines (and the strong reactions to them), it’s hard not to get discouraged about the world.

Violent entertainment, gangs, pollution, pornography, rampant drug abuse, never-ending wars, and political and civil unrest are but a small sampling of just how ugly things are. To be completely honest, I’ve often wondered if it’s morally responsible to bring children into such a dark world.

"People Frightened by Tide," by Auguste Delacroix

“People Frightened by Tide,” by Auguste Delacroix

But whenever I feel overwhelmed by my fears, I remember a bit of advice that my dad told me. It was in the fall of 2008, and the U.S. economy had just taken a nose-dive. Although I didn’t quite understand what was going on, two words were very clear: Economic Recession. On nearly every television station, reporters and politicians bemoaned the state of the economy and made gloomy, dire, and almost apocalyptic predictions. By all accounts, it sounded like America was on the brink of collapse.

I turned to my dad and asked him what he thought about it. He continued to stare at the screen and quietly shook his head.

“It looks like a lot of people are afraid. But you know what, Seth? I don’t subscribe to fear. And why should I? Fear rarely produces a positive result. All we can do is do our best to understand our situation and move forward with faith.

And you know what? He was right. Fear is destructive and defeating, but faith is constructive and creative. Fear finds an excuse while faith finds a way.

I wish I could tell you that my dad’s advice will give you endless prosperity and good fortune—but that would be a lie. In the years since the beginning of the economic recession, my family has had its share of problems—most of us lost our original jobs and were forced to find new ones. We’ve had car trouble, money trouble, house trouble, and serious medical troubles.

But you know what? In our times of trouble, we don’t subscribe to fear—we subscribe to faith. Instead of fearing the unknown, we’ve looked ahead to the possibilities. Instead of giving attention to the things that feed our doubts and fears, we give attention to the things that feed our faith and our hope. Living in a world full of fear, maintaining faith hasn’t been easy. But in that struggle for faith, we’ve been able to learn amazing lessons, and we’ve grown closer together as a family.

And part of me thinks that’s the way it was meant to be. If we are determined to move forward with faith, then opposition and resistance are the forces that will make us stronger. Yes, the world has is filled with terrible, dreadful things—but it’s also filled with wonderful, inspiring things. You are free to choose your subscription: will you subscribe to fear, or will you subscribe to faith?

Successful Failures

Some time ago, I had the chance to interview, Lindsay Hadley, a personal friend, and a rockstar in the non-profit world. In the interview, Lindsay shared with me some of her insights on how to find success in “failures.”

Lindsay Hadley

Lindsay Hadley

I met Lindsay Hadley in 2011 and was immediately impressed by her drive and humble confidence. She has spent her life in the service of others and the ripple effect has been astounding.

For example, In September 2012, Lindsay served as the Executive Producer of the Global Citizen Festival. With an audience of 60,000 on the Great Lawn of Central Park, New York, and a worldwide media and broadcast reach of over 2 billion people, Lindsay helped raise $1.3 billion in new funding for the world’s poorest communities.

As successful as the Global Citizen Festival was, Lindsay’s first fund-raising concert (just a few years prior) was not a financial success. Coming home from the event, Lindsay wondered, “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. Maybe I don’t have a right to be doing this…clearly I wasn’t enough.”

But in that moment of self-deprecation and doubt, Lindsay realized that the work she was doing was not about her, it was about the people she was trying to help. She then endeavored to change how she measured the success of her event. “Because when it wasn’t about me, there was more truth in the way I could look at it. And I could see all the great things—like the hundreds of volunteers that got involved, the incredible amounts of media that we garnished, the awareness that was generated that we couldn’t even truly measure” (for example, this video and article are an example of something that she never would have been able to measure or foresee).

Lindsay went on to say this beautiful quote about our “failures:”

“Your failures can be a part of your ultimate process of success if you but allow it to be…you can never fully see the good that you do—the impact that you make in the immediate—and you shouldn’t try to measure things that way. When you’re doing the right things out of love…then it will ultimately be a success in the end. I just believe that so much.”