When I heard the news about the passing of Robin Williams yesterday, a number of things went through my mind. The movies, sure, both good and bad. Wondering what happened to that TV show he was on last year that I never watched. And honestly, there was a certain amount of dread at knowing I was going to have to sit down and write an obituary. But what jumped out the most was Patch Adams. Much as I love Good Will Hunting, Patch Adams is my favorite movie to feature Robin Williams (critical faux pas though some may believe that to be). I can remember the first time I watched it, a pre-teen caught up in the humor and heartbreak of Patch’s journey from mental patient to medical school revolutionary. I thought about this movie yesterday, and I marveled at the absurdity of the fact that we lost the film’s two leading men (Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a heroin overdose earlier this year) not only in the same year, but both prematurely and by (effectively) their own hands.
Patch Adams is a comic drama that lives on the idea of mental health and, more sinisterly, mental instability. When we first meet the title character, he’s checking into a mental ward on suicide watch. He’s a lifeless, depressed shell of a man, and the movie makes sure we know part of him is always resting just under the surface. He may spend most of the rest of the movie engaged in various manic shenanigans and full of what can only be understood as authentic joyfulness, but that part of his personality is constantly at war with the part that questions the value of his own existence. There’s even a scene late in the film where he literally teeters on the brink. (Warning: Given the context, this scene may be difficult to watch.)
Then from the other side is Mitch, Patch’s uptight roommate whose stress-laden discipline proves no more tenable or less destructive. “I can’t get her to eat,” he says, brought nearly to tears over his inability to help a patient who refuses his care. “Now, I know everything there is to know about medicine. I’ve studied relentlessly. I guarantee you I can outdo, out-diagnose any attending and surgeon in this hospital. But I can’t make her eat.” Mitch’s attempts to control the world around him shatter in an instant upon the most innocuous obstacle – a frail old lady – and he fears his labors, the pitons of his existence, are for nothing. That which has driven him the entire movie – beating Patch – means nothing. Discipline falls away to despair.
No matter how unapparent someone’s personal demons may seem to the outside observer, they are always there, always circling, always ready to pounce. Hoffman was clean for years before relapsing into severe drug use. Williams is a man who brought smiles to millions, yet he fell victim to his own dark night of the soul. It’s amazing to me that they acted together in a movie that so poignantly dealt with these very ideas. Their characters find themselves nearly powerless in despair, yet somehow rediscover hope.
Williams’ and Hoffman’s deaths would seem somehow to reject that hope. Call it chemical imbalance, call it something else. These two immensely successful and, by all public evidence, thoughtful men couldn’t find within or without themselves a reason to go on hoping in life. How are we supposed to deal with that, or any other suicide, overdose, or senseless killing? How can we grapple with the idea that life is worth living?
That’s not a question which finds any simple answers, but I find myself thinking of Patch’s speech before the ethics board near the end of the movie.
“What’s wrong with death, sir? What are we so mortally afraid of? Why can’t we treat death with a certain amount of humanity and decency and, God forbid, maybe even humor. Death is not the enemy, gentlemen. If we’re going to fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all: indifference… A doctor’s mission should not be to just prevent death, but also to improve the quality of life. You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you win, no matter what the outcome.”
To be clear, the line speaks to death’s inevitability and not its sudden and premature appearance, but a given within that idea is that life is precious. “You treat a person, I guarantee you, you win.” Move over Sartre – the implication is that heaven is other people. Doubtless, the movie shows that such vulnerability – “transference” in the language of the scene – is dangerous. Bad things will happen, and they will happen without cause, and they will hurt. But I think what’s also inescapable is the preciousness of whatever time we are allotted with the people around us. A running subplot in Patch Adams concerns a terminal cancer patient who time and again violently refuses Patch’s attempts to engage him. Patch is shocked, scared, even abused. But he doesn’t give up. He keeps seeing the man. Eventually he shows up dressed as an angel with a list of euphemisms for death itself, and he gets the man to laugh.
I don’t mean to suggest that Williams or Hoffman were lacking personal connections with people who loved them deeply. All the evidence I have as a third party would suggest the opposite, in fact. So what am I getting at?
Answers are not easy to find, especially concerning things mysterious as life and death. They are searched for, believed in, tested, doubted, pursued. The great paradox of existence is its very impermanence. And that is difficult to reconcile with. We’re forced to recognize the certain absurdity within existence itself, to recognize that time is our most precious resource and yet be willing to spend it abundantly with one another anyways. We collectively mourn Williams and Hoffman in no small part because they were so good at the difficult task of sharing themselves with us.
Life is not easy. If the lives of Williams and Hoffman, not to mention Patch and Mitch, prove nothing else, it is that personal demons will never leave you. But what we’re also left with is the promise of value in transference with one another. We have been touched by these men, encouraged by them, had value added to our lives because of the work these men undertook. Tragic though their deaths will remain, perhaps we can be reminded of the value may add to one another’s lives.