Saddened by the recent loss of actor Robin Williams my family and I sat down to watch his movie Patch Adams. As the story about a medical student unfolded I resonated with his character’s desire to treat patients with dignity and humanity. It reminded me of all of the things I have ‘learned’ from Robin Williams in the movies and desire to integrate into my counseling with others:
There is great potential in every human beingPeople often come to counselors at their darkest moments. It takes a lot of courage to call a complete stranger and consider revealing your “crazy” thoughts, deepest secrets and shameful acts to them. Many, especially those dealing with depression, don’t believe they have anything to offer to the world. In many of Robin Williams’ movies he played characters that saw beyond the problems at hand to the potential and dignity of the person in trouble. He called them to live out of that potential, not hindered by their own inability to see it in themselves. Here’s a great scene from Dead Poet’s Society of a teacher pushing a student to step into his own potential.
People want to be treated by another person—not a technicianThere is a long-standing tradition of ‘professional distance’ in the field of psychology and medicine—some of it needed and appropriate, and some of it causes people to feel great shame and and believe they are ‘less than’ the professionals who treat them. During a decade of working in eating disorder treatment centers I often found that healing happened not just during the clinical hour but while chatting with patients in between sessions, asking about their favorite music or playing Jenga with them. Here’s a scene of Robin William’s character Patch Adams simply being human with patients.
Patients have namesJust watch the scene from Patch Adams.
Sometimes laughter is the best medicineGood Will Hunting is a great movie for therapists – and one that makes us all wish we had script writers for our sessions. The psychologist he plays in the movie often takes a confrontational approach with his client (played by a young Matt Damon) yet also reveals his humor and humanity in ways that are therapeutically powerful. In this scene he tells a personal story which brings home a transformative truth for his client. And, according to Matt Damon’s commentary on the DVD, Williams improvised the story about his wife, causing the cameraman to laugh so hard you can see the camera shaking when it is focused on Damon (Caution: R-rated language).
People are more important that policiesThis is a theme we see in many of the movies chosen by Williams. Much like Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his day to look beyond the letter of the law to what people actually need, the characters played by Williams often had a passion that people thrive, not just keep in line. There are rules that guide us in life and their are rules that drain that life from us. This scene from Dead Poet’s Society is a classic on knowing the difference.
The best professionals are those who know what it means to sufferMaybe this is what made Robin Williams such a passionate artist – his own familiarity with pain and suffering. It drew him to play characters who had been transformed through loss and into a man who could empathize with those he hoped to set free. I’ve always said that I would not want to work with a professional who has never had counseling himself.
People want to know that you are ‘all in’Most of us believe that if someone else were to know our ‘stuff’ he or she would be disappointed or disgusted with us. Before we fully we trust another with our pain we need to know that they are ‘all in’. This scene from Good Will Hunting portrays a professional who knows what it means to suffer as well as someone who is ‘all in’ (Caution: R-rated language).
I will miss the passion, empathy and loss that Robin Williams brought to us through the movies. He took the lines written by good writers and infused them with compassion and a belief in the dignity of all people. I hope to do the same.
One last observation. In reviewing films starring Robin Williams I realized a number of them dealt seriously with the topic of depression and suicide including Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come and Dead Poet’s Society. For those who experience the darkness of depression the idea of suicide is often not a desire to die but the feeling that they can’t go on living the way they are. If you, or someone you know, is feeling depressed, reach out for help to a suicide hotline or find a local therapist.