I stayed in my seat at iO last night, deciding to see the next show, excited to get to watch Mo Collins live for the first time and learn what happens at Mo and Tell. First thing, she shared about Robin Williams… I had somehow not heard the news yet. We all cried together. She shared that she also has depression and how Robin was a mentor and how she could barely speak all day. She was truly open with us. After five minutes of grounded truth, she stood, tiny on the stage, tears streaming down her face, and said, “This is a comedy show.” It was very funny. And then she asked the audience for good news, and she celebrated everything from new jobs to free, close parking spots. And then brought on her equally funny and open friends and family to tell stories and we all laughed together.
One story teller shared that her father was a great stand-up comedian in the 1920’s and 30’s and when he retired, he decided to give back to the community by opening a house for mentally ill and mentally handicapped people, but that he forgot to buy her family a separate house.
And he also forgot that he was an alcoholic and that his only background to help him run the house was being a stand-up. She grew up living with, and taking care of, a wild bunch of people. Ken Kesey came and interviewed her father and shortly after, the wild bunch of people became the cast of characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The story was told hilariously. But the part of the story that hit me the most was that growing up in the house, her father emotionally segregated her family from his empathy for the other housemates. To him, the housemates were “crazy” and the family was “normal”. She wasn’t allowed to need help too, so no one helped her deal with what was around her. “I’m still scarred,” she said.
The world has grown a lot over the decades, and mental illness is talked about more. But I hope that segregation of empathy eventually dissolves into a place where we all know that we are human. And humans are tender. And affected. And some aspects of mental illness come from reacting to circumstance, some come from being truly empathetic souls. She said, “I am too sensitive.” But how can that be? A child surrounded by chaos with no emotional arms to hold her, and some how life has taught her that she is too sensitive. Wouldn’t any human come out of that circumstance in the same way? And why would we scorn someone for being genuinely empathetic? Because it’s too close to making our own selves vulnerable?
We are taught, through words, through body language, through friendships that remain and or ones that disappear, that we can not be too open. And that a spoonful of laughter makes hearing about someone else’s problems more palatable. I wonder what it would be like if we knew we could share sadness, fear, and worry without judgement. Would comedians still make us laugh? I think so. But the ones that are hurting might feel better.
When empathy begins to seep past therapy sessions and quiet conversations between best friends, when it spills into dinner parties and presidential speeches, when it flutters into the grocery store line, and fills the air between two enemies, when it confidently rests upon the host of a comedy show and sprinkles over the hearts of a crowd who comes to see comedy and leaves knowing they saw that and so much more… We will be safer, we will be kinder, and we will be happier.
I still can’t stop crying today that Robin was so sad. But last night felt like a special way to honor him. Thank you Mo. Thank you Alex, Candi, Billy, and Debra for your stories.
And thank you Robin… for all that you’ve given us. #RIPRobinWilliams