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What can Robin Williams teach us?

Like many people, the news of Robin Williams’ suicide hit me hard. He and I are nearly the same age. I have loved his hilarious comedy as well as his powerful dramatic presence. It is so hard to believe he is gone – and in such a painful way.

A favorite professor taught me that it is impossible for a person to not communicate. Even silence says a great deal if we listen. So does suicide. What, I wonder, did Robin say by his suicide? What can I hear or learn from his last powerful statement?

While pondering this question (which I think will have a different answer for each person) I came across a movie clip that someone posted from the movie Good Will Hunting. It was the scene where Robin as the psychotherapist was on a park bench with his young client, Matt Damon. In his monologue, Robin’s character presented the young man with what I believe so many men need: a clear and direct challenge without criticism, and an offer of loving acceptance without enabling.

There is no way I can judge or offer opinions on the struggles Robin Williams faced and how he dealt with them. But his suicide seems to scream to me that there is much more going on in men – perhaps most importantly in the men close to us – that they cannot let anyone see or hear. Three simple points illustrate the problem:

1. Roughly half the population is male.

2. Less than a third of clients in counseling are male.

3. About 80% of successful suicides are male.

Clearly, we are missing something in men!

Unfortunately, most men in our society are not very emotionally literate. That is not their fault. Our society trains men in thousands of subtle and obvious ways to push away and not show tender or vulnerable emotions like fear, sadness, helplessness and shame. Even worse, men consistently learn that they are expected to deal with their problems on their own. Asking for help is an admission of weakness – and weakness seems to be the most unacceptable male trait of all.

So men learn to hide what hurts. They avoid what is scary. They medicate what is uncertain. They get big and loud to push away what threatens them, or they work to please, deflect and manipulate to keep from getting into trouble. Sadly, men are very, very good at hiding the pain and looking good, strong, competent - or even funny.

When I ask myself what Robin Williams has to teach me, I wonder if it is to be ever more aware that there is more pain going on than shows on the surface. Perhaps we need to lovingly challenge and be more fully available to the men around us. I cannot help but believe that our world is filled with many, many “Will Huntings”, who need a loving push to recognize and own their pain and helplessness, along with a powerful and accepting presence to stay with them while they work through it – a process that can allow them to become the most emotionally authentic and powerful men of integrity that they can be.

What if you asked a man today how he is doing – and really listened to his answer?

Northern Illinois Men’s Counseling stands ready to coach, support, guide and challenge men to be the best they can be. Call, text or e-mail if you have questions. When you are ready, you can schedule an appointment through the website without the hassle of phone tag.

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