Mortality, Robin Williams, and Emotional Priorities

I was sad to see that Robin Williams died over the night, apparently due to suicide. It is a terrible thing if a person feels that suicide is their only way out, and I’m attaching a list of crisis lines because these are things people should know exist, and should share profusely.

What I found more saddening than the news, however, was how many people on my Facebook feed were talking about it. I’m going to try and explain why that makes me sad but it’s a bit complicated, so bear with.

Firstly, everyone has the right to emotional priorities. Death is a powerfully sad thing, and when someone dies it is natural to respond. My expectation is that your emotional priorities firstly extend to your family, and then friends, then acquaintances, then celebrities, individuals whose death is highlighted by the media, and then the rest of the world. Reactions will be different across your emotional priorities, naturally.

Now, I worry about this as a format for priorities, because I know my own is fundamentally different. I am constantly preoccupied recently by news of death and destruction around the world, from the atrocities still being committed by the regime in Syria to the Ebola epidemic which is sweeping across West Africa. I am more sad about a disproportionate loss of life, particularly when being enacted by other people (read: I hate ISIS) than I am about the death of Robin Williams. He was a great man, but what about the children being killed daily? One of them might have been the next great comedy actor, but not now.

This is where it gets particularly tricky. So I am sad about the death of thousands of people across the world in conditions they should not be under. I am also sad about the death of a wonderful actor and charming man. Now let’s hit the social media side of this situation. In the last few hours, the majority of updates on my Facebook news feed have been lamenting the loss of Robin Williams. In the last few months I have sporadically seen outcry against the death toll in Gaza, or the humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

To repeat. The majority of updates today = Robin Williams. Sporadic outcry on the killing of thousands.

So this is the crux of my issue. People act as if the death of Robin Williams is the most terrible thing to have rocked their world in years, but it’s not. That is just a social media facade that they are choosing to display. I shudder to say this, but earlier this year Katie Hopkins (who is an absolute troll, and I shall not give her the exposure of linking to the article) wrote a piece explaining why she hadn’t come out on social media lamenting the death of Peaches Geldof, who had been her sparring partner in a debate a few months earlier. Her reasoning was, Peaches’ death was a tragedy that her family had to overcome. A media circus would not help that.

Posting about the loss of Robin Williams is not meaningful. Your feeling of loss may be real, but it is personal. I am almost certain that most of us would not go to Facebook on hearing of the loss of a loved one, so why is your personal sentiment about a celebrity different? On the other hand, raising awareness of disasters around the world is meaningful. Getting people to lobby the government to provide aid or other help is valuable. Yet people still emotionally prioritise an actor over a whole community.

So I think what I am saying is, mortality is something which affects us all, and everyone has their own emotional reaction to it. Next time a celebrity dies, be sad, if that is your reaction. There is nothing more you can do. But if you see that people are dying and you can do something, please do. Below are a few links to get you started. One man dying is not of less value than any other, and the death of Robin Williams is a tragedy. But if we can prevent death, then that is inherently more valuable. And it’s a more valuable use of your Facebook status as well.

Hand in Hand for Syria –
Christian Aid Iraq Crisis Appeal –
MAP Appeal –
Oxfam Crisis in South Sudan –

An Addition: Having published this post, I then had some great conversations with people who shared their views, and there were two bits I felt really express the one thing I’ve not covered, which is why Robin Williams is deserving of the press he is being given (when it is thoughtful and genuine). As one of my friends rightly put, “he was such a childhood figure. It’s a very big shock to any sense of childhood innocence and I can understand why people would feel the need to express that.” A second then summed it up beautifully: “[I maintain] the stance that people should keep posting photos and statuses and videos if they so wish, so long as it is tasteful and tactful, and if it raises more awareness about mental health then that is a wholly positive outtake on an otherwise dire situation”. So, thanks friends!

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