Goodbye To A True Genius

In 1994, I was tired, frustrated, at times discouraged, but determined to get into medical school. I was in the midst of my second attempt. I was working in two emergency rooms and volunteering at another hospital. I had also just completed a couple of classes to improve my grade point average. I had good MCAT scores, but a slow start in college left me scratching and clawing to become a “good” candidate for medical school.

In applying again, I reviewed the personal statement I wrote in 1993. It was awful. It was all fluff about “I just want to help people” and “I want to make the world a better place”. Those things are true, but that’s what (almost) everybody wants. Great concept but BORING statement. My dilemma was how to make this new statement really be about me.

….At this point, you may think I am calling myself the genius, but you are wrong….

Struggling to come up with an idea for my statement, I was watching Robin Williams’ 1989 performance as an English teacher in “Dead Poet’s Society”. In one scene, he is discussing poetry and recites an abridged version of the great Walt Whitman poem, “O Me! O Life”. The poem ends with the lines, “What good amid these, O me, O life? That you are here—that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

I will never forget that moment that I saw that scene and heard that poem so passionately recited. I immediately knew what my statement would be about.

My 1995 medical school application was not about how much I wanted to help people, but was about me and my bad decisions earlier in life. It was about my subsequent struggles and hard work to become a good candidate and why a medical school needed me as a student. I wrote about how I realized I have my place here on earth, and it was in medical school and ultimately to be a physician. My statement was gritty, kind of angry but in a nice, edgy way. It was about contributing my verse to the passionate play.

I thank the great Walt Whitman as it was his words that my epiphany on life came from. That being said, it was Robin Williams’ passion and unbelievable performance that sold me on that attitude on life.  He invigorated me and that filled me with the desire to press forward with a new attitude.

Robin Williams was a huge presence and he was a pure genius. He was a humanitarian, unique comedian and could act equally as well in comedy or drama. He even made a good bad guy. I believe that people who are that powerful and talented have the risk of leading shorter lives. I think of Earnest Hemingway, Van Gogh, certain rock stars, Heath Ledger. The list goes on and on. There is even a book about the possible connection between mental illness and greatness by Arnold Ludwig called “The Price of Greatness”.

There are lots of brilliant people out there. A brilliant person is a wonderful and valuable addition to any team. She can learn anything and rise to greatness through hard work. A genius, on the other hand, needs no training. That person just knows how to do it and generally in a better way. It is a blessing and a curse to be a genius. You wouldn’t think so, but it is often difficult for that person to succeed in a group or feel “normal”. A true genius is an exceptionally rare person. As Larry King said about Mr. Williams, “You will not see Robin Williams’ kind in this life again”.

All of this said, I am mad at you, Robin Williams. Mr. Williams, when you have a genius that is so rare, I suppose that it is hard to find your place on earth. Maybe you are more in touch with the sad and depressing aspects of life. People like you may be more prone to drug and alcohol abuse just trying to slow your mind down and to relate to others. I try to understand that desire and I try to empathize, but I wish you wouldn’t have left us in this painful and surprising way.

Maybe, like other geniuses in the past, you saw no other choice but getting out. I wonder if you either tried or never had the opportunity to learn from us “mortals”. To find comfort in this world in accepting what is and not what you knew could be.

Perhaps you did try that but never found the peace you were looking for. Maybe you thought you were a burden in the sense that you had to always be “great”. Then again, maybe you were just miserable, desperately but fruitlessly searching for satisfaction despite massive public acceptance and earning the highest honor in your profession. Maybe you left this world seeing no other options but to leave.

This is all speculation any way. Who knows why you really did it or what was really going on in your head. It is easy for us without this massive gift to judge you, but that is not fair. I would have loved the chance to see the world through your eyes for a day.

I worry that your way out may tarnish your image and your accomplishments, but I hope that we remember you for your greatness and for the joy you brought. Also for the new ways of acting and creating comedy that you left. I hope that whatever drove you to leave us in such a tragic way will teach the rest of us how to handle things better.

Hopefully other geniuses see what happened to you and are reminded of the fate of so many of your predecessors. I hope that your death will help teach them how to find peace and happiness. One lesson certainly is that fame and fortune alone clearly do not pave a golden pathway to happiness.

We are all different, but I bet that you felt way too different. That you felt there was no end to your depression and suffering. You may have been a genius but you did not have all of the answers.

In the end, your roller coaster life that was ended too short did leave a lasting impression on all of us. I thank you for your time here. I truly believe that I may not have made it into medical school without you. I am not sure I am a physician without your performance in Dead Poet’s Society.

The day I got my acceptance letter, I sat in a park by a tree for about two hours until the sun went down. I was just sitting, watching the world go by, completely satisfied and at peace. It was a wonderful day. So simple, so quiet, so beautiful. I wish you would have had more of those days.

(Robin Williams earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his performance in “Dead Poet’s”. He lost to Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot”. He made up for this loss with a supporting actor win in “Good Will Hunting” in 1997).

There are a couple of ironies I would like to point out.

First, right before Mr. Williams recites the poem, he has a line as he speaks to a student looking skeptical about the importance of poetry, “….Like 19th century literature has nothing to do with going to business school or medical school?”

Second, (spoiler alert!) the movie is about a tragic suicide.

9 thoughts on “Goodbye To A True Genius

  1. Julie Avirett says:

    That was a really great essay and a great tribute to Robin Williams. I hope somehow, somewhere, he knows the tremendous positive impact he had and can take some comfort in that.

  2. vonette sarche zupko says:

    Dear Steve,
    Didn’t know about your epiphany, but I totally get it. Robin’s powerful gifts impacted so many in so many ways.
    When I heard of his death, I seriously gasped for air and then sobbed. I’m planning to have a film fest of his amazing work in order to properly celebrate his life and grieve his loss.
    And you, dear Steve, continue to win my heart with your tenderness and precious incites. You remind me so much of my own dad and yours.
    Love you.

  3. Mitch Parke says:

    No one could have said this better.
    I always felt a kinship to Mr. Williams through both his comedy and depression.
    Such a wadte of life.
    I will along with so many other people will miss him dearly.
    Thanks Doc. Your compassion will always show through.

    Doing well because of you,


  4. David Plunkett says:

    Thank you, Steve, for this wonderful and moving tribute to Mr. Williams. He defined genius and inspired so many of us in moving and life-changing ways. I grieve for the pain he experienced…I’ve had no words for my sadness and your article helped me identify what I’ve been unable to express. Many thanks.

  5. Gina says:

    I loved watching Robin Williams in anything he did. He made me laugh, he made me cry, he made me FEEl. That was the gift he gave me ! I am so sadden by his death but more sad because of how alone and sad he must have felt In that moment that he took his own life. It is a very sad, loney place to be when you are so depressed. And then to not want to live any more takes only a mere 10 seconds to act on. I wish I could have been in that room with him, could have hugged him and told him ” I know, I understand and you are not alone”. I wish he was still here with us to continue to make me laugh and smile! I will miss you Robin Williams.

  6. Neeli Lambert says:

    This eloquent farewell captures much of the thoughts and grief I have felt about Robin Williams since learning about his suicide. As a former teacher of a honors human biology course, my students prepared a poignant multimedia presentation about depression and the famous victims who chose the same escape route. The artists and creative people I know are also haunted by and lament the dark side of living with a creative mind. I was still utterly shocked and heartsick about Robin’s decision. Even the checkout ladies at my grocery store had incredible memories of his work told detailed stories of how he impacted them. He touched so many, yet felt utterly alone. Ironically, I recently watched his interaction with a gorilla who has been taught sign language. In hindsight I wonder if this is a great example of his struggle to understand the rest of us. He was intrigued, amused, and trying mightily to comprehend this creature in front of him. He was delighted at the breakthroughs, but primarily looked very anxious and uncertain. Most of the geniuses that survived the longest, such as Einstein, Salvadore Dali, Jackson Pollock, etc., had what I call a “social translator.” There was a woman who acted as an intermediary that came as close as humanly possible to understanding the genius they advocated for. Perhaps this is the anchor that tethers the genius to the neurotypical world. Always feeling alien, but understood just enough by at least one person to survive and feel sheltered from those who cannot comprehend their minds. I have a child in this world that I realize has counted on me in this way. It is a treacherous and frightening world for him. Suicide is a common hazard for these children, especially in the tumultuous period of adolescence. I only hope that I can hold fast well enough, help him negotiate and comprehend the neurotypical world, and do more than survive this life with a joy we all deserve to experience. At 63, Robin Williams has likely fought this battle his entire life and was simply too tired to continue. We will never know for sure, but I will always be grateful that he blessed us with his genius for as long as he could.

  7. Samantha Khani says:

    I really enjoyed reading this! Thank you for sharing such a touching story. I think it is important to celebrate life and what better way to celebrate life than hearing the stories of how Robin Williams’ genius touched so many people.
    I also read this to my sister who is stressed about writing a personal statement that captures who she is on paper. Applying to med schools is a hard thing to do, but I know she will figure it out.

  8. Wendy Clifton says:

    Love this reflection…. Really hope Robin is happy now because no matter how you spread it out, sometimes it’s just too hard. Is care taking another form of narcissism at some level, or is it just not knowing how to be yourself without needing to entertain others. I just feel sad at his passing but maybe he just had no other resource for his pain. Love to his family… Thanks Robin.. You made me laugh and cry and I so wish I knew what the magic words were for this cycle. Thanks Dr. Steve… You express so well.

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