I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.
As an English and Psychology major, one of my favorite Robin Williams’ movies is Dead Poets Society. I remember watching it for the first time and being smitten by the idea of “sucking the marrow out of life”. Carpe Diem was incarnated in the passion for adventure and for existential questions. And one of the most universally stirring scenes began with sounding “the barbaric YAWP”. For those who haven’t seen it, in short summary, Ethan Hawke is the shy, repressed high school student eager to learn from Robin Williams, the avant-garde English professor serving up Walt Whitman’s poetry with a side dish of radical ideas on free thinking. These ideas are met with tremendous resistance from the powers-that-be at their college prep school. And the decision to agree with the intriguing, radical professor comes at great peril.
In the storyline, the English professor (Williams) asks the introverted student (Hawke) to utter his own barbaric yawp—a guttural cry, an incantation, giving voice to deep-seated and long repressed emotions. The barbaric yawp is primal, poignant, and cathartic. This scene is climactic in the story line as Ethan Hawke’s character begins with barely audible stuttering and slowly gains courage until he finds his voice for the first time in that guttural scream. His barbaric yawp is met with the applause of his fellow classmates as they recognize how that cry resonates with their own desire to unshackle what has long been chained, and their own hope of discovering their audible voices.
On the day that Robin Williams died, this champion of the barbaric yawp, our culture uttered its own, collective guttural cry.
I’ve read and skimmed countless articles about Robin Williams’ death over the past week and a half. In the two days following his death, reactions poured in regarding his depression, his struggles with addiction, his suicide, his contribution to the world, how the media handled the news, and how everyone on social media did or did not handle the news. Seemingly every angle was covered and the overwhelming theme was championing greater awareness of mental illness and suicide prevention.
Then, two days later, more news came. Robin Williams had Parkinson’s disease. The landscape of the conversation changed a bit, and the blogs and newsfeeds quieted. Maybe this was because they had already exhausted that guttural incantation, or maybe it was because the diagnosis of Parkinson’s really did change their view of the events surrounding his death, and maybe it changed their grief response to follow.
Whatever the case may be, the content of the posts and the trends toward conversation or silence were all important diviners of human nature—the nature of those responding to his very unfortunate death.
Those bird’s-eye eulogies, the responses to depression, the responses to addiction, the responses to impressions made: “I met him once…” or “My favorite memory of him is…”; the created platforms to champion psycho-education about depression, or provide numbers for suicide hotlines, or criticize other media responses to the news; the many and varied reactions told me so much more about each author’s own grief than about Robin Williams’ life and death.
Grief tumbles out of us in a barbaric yawp. In the instance we hear the grief-inducing news, all of these emotions course through our bodies in various states of consciousness until we’re left screaming on blogs, or crying out through articles, or Facebook posts to friends, or stream-of-consciousness ramblings into leather journals. Grief leaves us searching for an outlet for all of the conflicting emotions—a welcome release.
Like the barbaric yawp, grief is also one way we find our own voice. It brings out the primal fear, anger, sadness, despair, and the other, sweeter raw emotions surface as well: compassion, love, respect, and the ever beautiful–hope.
I saw every one of these emotions cutting through these bird’s-eye eulogies in articles–dissecting sentences into distinct emotional categories. Here’s one of my favorites, a quote from author Anne Lamott (who grew up with Robin Williams) to her friends on Facebook:
“Here is what is true: a third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction. I sure do. I have both. And you still love me. You help hold me up. I try to help hold you up. Half of the people I love most have both; and so do most of the artists who have changed and redeemed me, given me life. Most of us are still here, healing slowly and imperfectly. Some days are way too long… Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.”
Unexpected moments of grief are not to be taken lightly. They are tremendously emotional because they reflect the gravity of the situation at hand. And yet, if they’re vessels for carbonation, they demonstrate how levity can come while standing on holy ground. Our instinct to sound the barbaric yawp should come with the knowledge of what we’re sounding. The death of a celebrity often comes with collective cultural stirrings. Add the tragic circumstance of suicide to that, and the cultural response is amplified tenfold.
For those who didn’t feel that strongly about Robin Williams, you may still have been impacted by the nature of his death, or his experiences with depression, or addictions, or Parkinson’s. And, simultaneously, you may have been impacted by his effervescence. There’s so much to be impacted by in his story. When we experience grief and sound the barbaric yawp, we are searching for meaning, and for some way to make sense of the painful tragedy we’re experiencing. We’re looking for hope.
Is there hope for you? Is there meaning behind the carbonated holiness, shaken and stirred?
At the end of Dead Poets Society, the boys rally around their beloved Professor. In a display of solidarity led by the once-shy boy turned man, they stand on their desks defying the powers-that-be, and call out to him one last time: “Oh Captain, my Captain”.
They would follow him anywhere, risking the “abyss” because shaken and stirred, they have hope.