Limerick: Humor, sorrow and Robin Williams’ suicide
In western Pennsylvania, our Volkswagen bug abruptly ended its useful life. Standing in the rain in the breakdown lane (which has always struck me as a fine name for a rock band), my husband Jeff and I looked into the engine compartment. We discovered evidence of the event called “throwing a rod” — which may sound like “popping a cork” or “shaking a leg,” but is entirely different in its emotional impact.
This was a deeply crummy situation, which came close to a reality-based pun. The town nearest to our automotive calamity was named Krumsville. And so I said to Jeff, “This is going to be a funny story years from now.”
Jeff did not respond with delight — or even enthusiasm — to this insight. But over the years, he came to see my roadside observation as one of my rare successes in prophecy.
The Krumsville Incident embodied and encapsulated the one proposition that I have held with certainty my entire life: A robust sense of humor is the foundation of resilience; turning difficult experiences into funny stories provides the bedrock for a long and worthwhile life.
I have been re-evaluating the accuracy of that proposition since learning of Robin Williams’ death.
Asked to respond to this sorrowful news, Dr. Steven Sultanoff, an expert on the ties between humor and depression, offered a thought-provoking statement: “We know that the stressing emotions such as depression, anger, and anxiety cannot exist at the same time when one is experiencing humor. … So in the moment of experiencing mirth, the other distressing emotions such as depression dissolve.”
I now present the Limerick Corrective to the Sultanoff Hypothesis, drawing on my own findings as a one-time expert in accompanying a spouse to intensive care units.
In reality, emotions such as sorrow and grief often “exist at the same time” with mirth and humor. And, miraculously, with the passage of time, the memory of the humor and mirth will gain strength, and the memory of the sorrow and grief will be blunted.
When he was 49, Jeff suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. His most alarming symptom was a complete shutdown of short-term memory. As we waited with a nurse for transfer to the intensive care unit, Jeff asked us, “What seems to be the problem?”
“The CT scan shows that there is bleeding in your brain,” we said to him.
“That’s a heck of a thing,” he said to us.
A minute later, he repeated this question. We repeated our answer. And he repeated his conviction that this was a heck of a thing.
And, finally, as the conversation circled around itself, the nurse and I could not stop ourselves from laughing, which understandably puzzled Jeff.
“We are laughing because you have asked us this question many times,” we told him. “We answer it, and then you ask us again.”
“That,” said Jeff, “is a heck of a thing.” In this manner, the nurse, Jeff, and I teetered on the brink of steep calamity, periodically regaining our footing with laughter.
And here’s what I did not see coming. Nearly 20 years after that conversation, and nearly 10 years after Jeff’s death from a second stroke, that weirdly mirthful exchange has settled into a sharp and vivid memory, while the extreme sorrow and terror of that moment have faded.
For many years, my respect for the power of a robust sense of humor was so strong that I believed it was the preventative for suicide. As Robin Williams’ passing has reconfirmed, that belief fully qualifies for designation as wishful thinking.
Williams is famous for coining the phrase, “Reality: what a concept,” which seems to make a nice fit to the Limerick Corrective to the Sultanoff Hypothesis.
Sorrow and humor co-exist with an implausible compatibility, and the staying power of humor is a vast delivery system for consolation.
What a concept.