At some point in your life you’ve probably heard people equated with snowflakes. This is the metaphor we use to understand human uniqueness: each person has a set of totally individual traits and qualities in the same way that each snowflake has a completely new structure of crystals that never existed before.

I used to identify with this metaphor quite a bit. Whenever I felt like I didn’t fit in I would tell myself that it had to be because I was a beautiful snowflake. I was special and unique, and that was why I felt so alone. That’s the dream, right? You don’t fit in because you’re just too special. Everyone else is a standard, carbon copy drop of rain, but you- you are the snowflake.

I floated along on my snowflake theory until very recently when my incredibly wise boyfriend pointed out the fact that all snowflakes are different, not just one. In a flurry every snowflake is different from every other snowflake, which means that although they all are different, none of them are seen as particularly special in practice. They all have the same ingredients mixed around in different places and I don’t think that’s a great metaphor for humans at all. Humans are endlessly varied: some can see while others can’t; some can sing but not run while others can run but not sing; some read right to left, some read top to bottom, and some don’t read at all. Biologically we are made up of the same elements, but when it comes to what we do, think, see, experience, although I recognize that there are incredibly heartening similarities across centuries and across cultures, each individual is just that- an individual. We all have just a few out of zillions of attributes, unlike snowflakes, which include essentially all the same materials. So maybe this concept of humans as individuals doesn’t really jive with the snowflake idea after all.

Today I posed to my wise boyfriend an alternative metaphor, a chocolate chip cookie. Cookies are made up of all kinds of sweet and wonderful things like sugar and butter, and those all coalesce into one of our world’s great culinary gifts: cookie dough. But then you have these weirdo brown things that feel different and look different and taste a little more exotic- that’s the chocolate chips (and, in this metaphor, me). The chocolate chips are not like the other ingredients, and they don’t mesh in nicely. They stick out all lumpily and transform the whole thing into a totally different cookie. Isn’t it interesting that cookies are named after what makes them different, not what makes them the same?

This was all kind of cool, but still not perfect. Snowflakes didn’t work because if each snowflake is different then the fact of being a snowflake is not actually what makes us special. But chocolate chip cookies sort of don’t work either, because although I like the sound of it, it feels too elitist to say that others are the lowly, unexciting dough while I am the illustrious chocolate chip.

We put the metaphors aside and later, in the midst of a completely different conversation, the wise boyfriend struck again. “Isn’t it funny,” he said, “that human beings are totally symmetrical, but our hearts are on one side?”

Humans are made up of blood and tissues and bones and muscles and a few other things. These things are all pretty standard and although they’re very cool in what they can do and what they allow us to do, we generally all have the same ones and it’s really not all that exciting. In fact, in most humans our limbs are just copies of one another. But the heart- the heart is what gives life to the body. And the heart is off to the side.

The thing that makes us alive is off to the side. Even if you want to argue that the brain is more important, we can say the same thing there: the brain is all the way on the top, it has two totally asymmetrical hemispheres with completely different functions, and it makes our heads stick out in awkward places. The parts of us that are the most important, that give us life, that make us who we are, are not standard. They are extraordinary. They are off-center and they do not have duplicates, but they are meant to be that way.

Now I propose a different metaphor. I think I’ll see all of us as organs or cells within a body. Like different parts of the body, humans are all made of the same things but we each have different functions. In the same way that the body needs totally unique and off-centered brains and hearts, all humans are required by the universe to be in some way weird and imperfect. Otherwise our force of life would have no direction.

The coolest thing about this metaphor is that, as special as I am, it allows me to also have parts that are totally normal. We all have amazing gifts in addition to complete and utter banalities, just like every human body. It would be impossible to have only one or the other. Each body gets hundreds of bones, but only one heart, one brain.

So in a way the best metaphor for humans as individuals and as a collective is that we are exactly what we are. We are all duplicate mixtures of blood and tissues and bones and muscles, but what’s driving those? Our heart.


PS: The wise boyfriend proofread this blog, and informed me that my conclusion has actually already been discovered by psychologists. It’s called group-level functionalism, and you can read about it in this book.


Why We’re Not Monkeys

Normally I write a blog post when I experience something that inspires me, but today I thought I’d do something a little different. Today I wanted a challenge. I decided to find something random and come up with a way to make something meaningful out of it (honestly, isn’t that always what I’m doing anyway?). So I went to a random word generator, which offered six new words each time I clicked a button. I clicked the button three times, and among other things, I got “gorilla,” “giant,” and “banana.” Looks like somebody up there would really like me to write something about monkeys.

So, apparently the reason monkeys think we humans are so gosh darn unattractive is because we have these big ugly foreheads. (I would like to think the monkeys would leave us alone mating-wise no matter how our heads were shaped, but this is what my professor said the other day so I’m gonna go with it.) Why do our foreheads protrude, unlike those of our monkey friends? Well, it’s because we have prefrontal cortexes.

Which is really cool, because that’s the part of our brain that we use to make decisions. But which is really uncool because the prefrontal cortex actually doesn’t get fully developed until you’re at least 25 or so, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve had to make quite a few decisions when, frankly, your brain literally doesn’t know how to do it. If you didn’t know this fun fact before, you might feel alarmed right now- or you might finally feel justified. At least that’s how it was for me. Thank goodness it’s not going to be so tough to make decisions my whole life!

Now, here’s the part that seems weird to me. When you think about the trajectory of a person’s life, honestly, a ton of the really huge decisions get made before age 25. Many people are younger than 25 when they decide on a college, a career path, and sometimes even a life partner. We spend the great part of our adult lives building on the basics that we set up before we were even really capable of doing so. Does that feel scary for anyone else?

Think of it this way. Let’s say you have really poor vision like me. Your glasses are coming, but you’ve got to go to the store now because you can’t live without food, right? So you blurrily start shopping. You don’t know what your options are, you don’t really know what you’ve chosen, you’re not even sure if you’re prepared to pay for it. You end up leaving the store with something, for sure, but you definitely had a handicap in picking it. You get home, and finally, there are your glasses. You put them on, and now you’ve got to feed yourself. You’ve got to deal with whatever is in front of you and make the best of it now that you understand, or else risk losing time and money and wasting resources by going back to the store and starting all over again. Maybe you’ve even got someone depending on you, someone who needs food now, and going back means you have to keep them waiting.

This all feels like some kind of practical joke, right? What genius supreme or scientific being was like, “Hey, you know what would be fun? Making humans do a bunch of stuff they can’t do when they’re too undeveloped to understand that they can’t do it! Then I’ll make them live out the consequences.” I picture some evil laugh there. Why would you do this to us, oh great supreme/scientific being?

Because I have to come up with an answer for everything, here’s what I have decided. We are made this way because there is something infinitely important in the ability to leap, to feel, to trust. If we had fully functional decision-making skills as kids, we probably wouldn’t do the awesome things we love kids for: doing whatever they want just because it’s fun, making mistakes and getting over them, saying what they mean. Essentially, kids would be mini adults. That would be really sad, not to mention boring.

I think we are made this way so that we have a whole 25 years of practice following our hearts because our heads can’t quite do it. I think we were made this way so that we would know the feeling of acting on impulse, of taking risks, of choosing a path of passion and fulfillment over a path of steady security. I think our good old supreme/scientific being figured 25 years of practice should be enough, so that those feelings and behaviors of intense emotionality will fuel us when our heads are ready and we have other people to take care of.

So, for those of us who are still running around confused and blurry-eyed, let’s take advantage of it. Let’s make the risky choice. Let’s do what we feel rather than what we think. In short, let’s make our lives exciting and vibrant and so fulfilling that when we are finally trusted with the responsibility of making decisions, we can make them with fully practiced, completely understood hearts rather than timid, safe, logical heads.

Lo and behold, I have come to the conclusion that we were made this way for a reason, even though it’s hard. That’s life, right? Our brains aren’t wired to understand it all. The best we can do is to follow our hearts, because they get the world far more than our heads ever will.

How’s that for meta? Somebody up there wanted me to write about monkeys, and I started this blog months ago. At the time I couldn’t figure out the answer. It took me a while to get it. And what did I figure out? That somebody up there knows far more than I do about why we are the way we are, and that my only job is to trust.

Now that’s something I know how to do.

An Island of Inferi: Harry Potter and the Perfect Analogy for Depression

Dumbledore screamed; the noise echoed all around the vast chamber, across the dead black water…
“It’s all right, Professor, it’s all right!” said Harry loudly, his hands shaking so badly he could hardly scoop up the sixth gobletful of potion; the basin was now half empty. “Nothing’s happening to you, you’re safe, it isn’t real, I swear it isn’t real- take this, now, take this….”
“It’s all my fault, all my fault,” he sobbed. “Please make it stop, I know I did wrong, oh please make it stop and I’ll never, never again…”
“This will make it stop, Professor,” Harry said, his voice cracking as he tipped the seventh glass of potion into Dumbledore’s mouth.
Dumbledore began to cower as though invisible torturers surrounded him; his flailing hand almost knocked the refilled goblet from Harry’s trembling hands as he moaned…

-Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, p. 572

Sound familiar?

I don’t mean the passage- of course it sounds familiar if you’ve read the Harry Potter books. Here Dumbledore has finally given Harry the chance to prove himself, allowing him to embark upon a dangerous magical adventure with a teacher’s blessing for the first time in his life, but the adventure isn’t what Harry thought it would be. Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor and idol, must drink a potion that reduces him to the likes of a tortured child, and it’s Harry’s job to take care of him.

This is where things might start to look familiar, at least if you know a bit about J.K. Rowling’s life. Rowling has publicly discussed her personal battles with depression and suicidal thoughts, and to me that’s what this part of Book 6 is about.

Those of us who have read Book 7 know that Dumbledore has certainly had trauma in his past, but at this point Harry knows almost nothing about Dumbledore’s life outside of his duties as headmaster (and he doesn’t even really know those very well). In Harry’s mind, Dumbledore is the ultimate boss: he’s unnaturally perceptive, enormously well-learned in all branches of magic, and- as Kingsley Shacklebolt says- he’s got style. Imagine how utterly disconcerting it is for Harry to see his seemingly invincible hero suddenly fall apart.

When Dumbledore drinks the mystery potion, his past comes back to haunt him. The potion causes him to be vulnerable, to feel the full force of his mistakes and his losses. Although he has hid it from Harry and the rest of the world, Dumbledore’s pain is still there underneath the surface, constantly in danger of boiling over. The potion does not give Dumbledore pain; it simply opens the floodgates, enabling him to feel the tsunami of hurt that he has been holding back.

Here, Rowling offers a sensitive and totally illuminating way of understanding depression. Depression does not make a person sad; it alters one’s ability to feel sad feelings, either blowing them out of proportion or dulling them almost completely. This can mean that a person with depression has difficulty feeling much of anything, or that negative feelings overflow disproportionately in response to what should be events of minimal significance. A person with depression, just like a person without, has had painful experiences. The difference is in the ability to deal with that pain, and that’s what Dumbledore perfectly embodies here.

Think about how Harry responds. To paraphrase: “I’ll make it stop. It’s alright. It’s not real.” In other words? “I don’t understand what you’re feeling, so I’m telling you that it doesn’t exist, and I’m going to make it my responsibility to fix it.” That, in a nutshell, is the reaction that people experiencing depression often hear from loved ones. Loved ones cannot understand how depression feels without having experienced it, just as Harry cannot see what Dumbledore sees while drinking the potion. From Harry’s perspective, Dumbledore is fine one moment, and the next he’s on the ground moaning.

In the same way, people who experience depression often have difficulty explaining their experience to loved ones, and in turn, loved ones struggle to know how to respond when the depression takes its hold. Pretend you have depression; pretend you’re Dumbledore. People don’t understand. They try to help, but you’re practically impervious because you feel so alone. You’re reliving the worst bits of your life and it isn’t happening in real time but you’re completely powerless to stop it. You would rather die than feel this. Your facade disappears, your pain is exposed, and now it takes everything you have to cry out for help and hope that somebody around can hear it.

“Water,” croaked Dumbledore…
“Sir, I’m trying, I’m trying!” said Harry desperately, but he did not think that Dumbledore could hear him; he had rolled onto his side and was drawing great, rattling breaths that sounded agonizing…
He flung himself over to the edge of the rock and plunged the goblet into the lake, bringing it up full to the brim of icy water that did not vanish… A slimy white hand had gripped his wrist, and the creature to whom it belonged was pulling him, slowly, backward across the rock. The surface of the lake was no longer mirror-smooth; it was churning, and everywhere Harry looked, white heads and hands were emerging from the dark water, men and women and children with sunken, sightless eyes were moving toward the rock: an army of the dead rising from the black water.

Finally, you gather the strength to communicate what you need: water. You are too weak to get it for yourself, and the simple act of asking is almost too much. In fact, it takes more than strength. It takes trust, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is one of Dumbledore’s greatest powers of all.

And the person you ask for help? That person doesn’t know what to do. They feel panicked, blind to your invisible but immense pain. They want to help, but they don’t know how. Possibly the worst part is that you both fear that your plea for help will drag them down with you, just as Harry sacrifices his own safety to get Dumbledore just one precious mouthful of water.

We all know what happens next. Harry never regrets helping Dumbledore. Instead he bravely fights off the inferi and gets himself and Dumbledore back to Hogwarts, where it all goes down on the astronomy tower. Here Rowling makes her last point in this beautifully crafted comparison: only after dealing with his pain, only after getting through it, not around it or over it, only after asking for and accepting help by giving total trust in somebody who cares about him, does Dumbledore become himself again. Dumbledore knows that his end approaches, but imagine the feeling of peace and relief that he must have to be able to say, “I’m not afraid, Harry. I’m with you.”

Dumbledore doesn’t get a happy ending, but he gets an ending in which he has full control over his fate and his legacy. After a life of hidden pain and guilt, an empowered sort of death would be, to Dumbledore, a personal victory. It is more powerful for him to die having accepted his story than to die feeling happy; in fact, Dumbledore’s selfless, regret-less acceptance of death may be one of his greatest accomplishments.

Rowling offers a piercingly true depiction of depression from inside and out and from before, during, and after. I think her most important lesson, though, is this: any hopelessness can be overcome if we take the leap, trust in somebody else, and forgive ourselves. Only then can we truly find peace.


dumbledore ability to love


Right now I am so happy that I don’t know what to do.

Every day it is true that I have a loving family, that I went to a great school, that I have had all sorts of experiences and learned all sorts of things in this world. But every day I am not happy about these things. Often, our emotions are based solely on what’s happening at this very moment, and it is true that this very moment isn’t always the most exciting moment we’ve had.

Here’s a psychology tidbit: humans feel negative emotions seven times more strongly than we feel positive ones. It’s how we made it this far. In terms of survival, it’s a lot more important to be able to experience fear of dangerous things, and sadness in response to losing important things, than it is to feel any sort of positive emotion such as happiness.

In other words, evolutionarily speaking, feeling happy doesn’t get us anywhere. So how do I reconcile that fact with this feeling of gratitude and love that I have at this moment? I am so completely happy to have had wonderful relationships in my life full of self discovery, sleepovers, long walks, long talks, trips all over the world, trips to the grocery store, tears, hugs, hands held, running and jumping into someone’s arms because I know that they’ll catch me. I always know that they’ll catch me, even if we’re not together.

happiness collage

Some of the people who make me happy

I recently watched this movie called Like Sunday, Like Rain (2014), which follows an au pair and her 7th-grade charge, chronicling the development of their strong and uncanny friendship and making me miss my own 8th graders desperately. By the end, my emotions were so strong that I felt uncomfortable simply watching the movie without turning my feelings into some kind of revelation. But what could I do: call one of my kids? Become an au pair myself? I didn’t know how to deal with this feeling, because I treat feelings like potential energy that require some sort of action in order to count. How I feel doesn’t matter, because my emotions are insignificant unless they turn into a career path or a relationship or even a blog.

It’s like the episode of Full House when Uncle Jesse first proposes to Becky. The conversation starts as a breakup, but instead the two realize that they’re actually ready to say “I love you” for the first time. Of course, Jesse takes the most logical next step:

Jesse: Have mercy! We gotta get married right now.
Becky: Wait a minute. Right now?
Jesse: Yes, we declared our love. You said you’d marry me. We’re in Nevada. Let’s do it!

Jesse is so excited to realize that he and Becky are in love that he has to do something about it. Standing around and just being in love doesn’t feel possible. Instead, he has to follow this strong emotion with a concrete action so that it’s easier to understand. But, of course, Jesse isn’t thinking straight. A wedding is just a ceremony that represents love. It doesn’t guarantee love, it doesn’t solidify love, and it doesn’t have to go hand in hand with love either. What Jesse really needs to do, rather than booking a slot at the illustrious Ali Baba Hotel and Casino Wedding Chapel, is pause, look at Becky, and sit with the realization of how he’s feeling and how lucky he is.

Uncle Jesse and I have the same lesson to learn: feelings are allowed to matter because they are a part of us. I have so much to be thankful for, and today the world is sending me all the right vibes and messages and songs to make me think about the incredible relationships that I have had. I can’t act on those feelings by moving so that I live closer to all of my cross-country best friends. I can’t reach out to every single person I’ve known. All I can do is sit with this feeling of joy and gratefulness and remind myself that I have the right to be happy. Even if I can’t use my happiness for anything, that doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve to have it.

Right now I am so happy, and that’s all I have to do.


To Write Love On Her Arms

This may come as a shocker, but I don’t think fairytale endings exist. In fact, I think that, most of the time, people don’t even know what we’re doing. Today I watched a movie called To Write Love On Her Arms (2012), and it made me even more sure of these things. Here’s why.

To Write Love On Her Arms is a movie based on the true story of a girl named Renee who grew up with what is referred to both as bipolar disorder and as an active imagination. In high school she becomes a victim of rape, and that event in addition to her previous condition snowballs into what becomes a serious cutting habit along with a drug and alcohol addiction. The majority of the movie takes place in and around the time she decides to get clean.

What I loved about this movie was how all of its characters balanced between fighting their own demons and each other’s, and the character of David McKenna illustrates this idea more than anyone. We’re introduced to him as a recovered addict and as Renee’s best friend Dylan’s boss. He comes into the movie as a mentor figure who knows what Renee is going through and where to take her. That’s typical in a movie, or any story for that matter- to have a character who has advice and knows what to do.

But McKenna is different. As the movie goes on, we realize that he isn’t as put together as he seems to be. In fact, although he attempts to put forth this narrative that he has gone through the dark side and seen the light, he is in fact just as vulnerable as Renee, maybe even more. Eventually, he admits his belief that he himself is the problem central to his addiction, that no matter who he meets or where he goes, his problem won’t go away because the problem is him. These are not the words of a man who has come to terms with his past or who has everything figured out. These are the words of a man who goes through an invisible battle every day, a man who believes that his life is a problem to be solved. How can he possibly be helping someone else?

Renee feels the same way when her story begins to touch people who then reach out to her for support. They do this because we are so often taught that stories work a certain way, that people go through problems and come out on the other side newly enlightened and with the ability to help others in the same position. But, right out of rehab, Renee is “still messed up.” She doesn’t believe that she has any right to offer advice to others, because she hasn’t even figured out herself.

This movie illuminates so many oft-unspoken things, but one of them is the invaluable lesson that even the people who help us also need help themselves. That sometimes those of us who need help the most are the ones who won’t ask for it. That the stories we tell arc much more gracefully than the sketched and smudged lines of real life. Jamie, the man who brings Renee’s story to the world, says that he wrote her story because he wanted to believe in happy endings. But happy endings are not that simple: the truth is that sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes things are over before we can find the good side. Sometimes sober people relapse.

In fact, at the end of the movie, Renee realizes that it’s her turn to help McKenna through his own relapse. At first she can’t understand how the man who mentored her let himself fall back into his addictions. But then he admits what Renee, and all of us, have felt at some point: “I don’t have anybody, okay?” Renee simply replies, “I don’t either.” It’s not a conventional story: the student has not become the teacher and the teacher has not become the student. Instead, the story has become much more real because Renee and McKenna both feel alone, and that’s what brings them together.

At one point in the movie, Renee asks God, “Why did you make me like this?” In this powerful moment, it’s easy to understand how Renee- or anyone else- could wonder what the point is in even being alive. One might think, why does the world need someone like me? To that I answer, because we all suffer. And the fact that you suffer- not whether or not you turn out “okay”- is what gives you the ability to connect with others. I’ve said before that things fit better together when they’re roughed up a little bit. Maybe it’s our bumps, our bruises, our cracks, and our scars that help us to find our place with each other.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 10.33.11 PM

Learn about To Write Love On Her Arms here.

Music is my Religion

PSA: This post is inspired by Alive Inside, a documentary about the power of music in reuniting people suffering from dementia with their memories.

For the whole movie I watched people come alive as headphones were placed onto their ears and the sounds of their past came rushing in, touching the places that had not been affected by dementia. I heard big band, gospel, Louis Armstrong, and I cried along with the people whose lives had been momentarily regifted to them. I felt so moved and inspired and lucky to bear witness to what I think can be considered a miracle: memories that were gone now came back.

But the beauty of these moments is not just in remembering the past. The fact that music can help us to recover memories is certainly something, but it also serves as an indicator that music is far more essential to humanity than we may realize. Pick whatever pop bubblegum artist you hate and marvel at how what they do could be considered essential to humanity, but then think about it this way: music is so essential to humanity that we will accept it in just about any form coming from just about any person. Our hearts beat. Our voices have tones. Even people as rhythmically challenged as my dear mother still feel the urge to tap or dance along to the beat of a song.

Music is a part of every culture. It is a part of every religion. It easily accompanies any physical, artistic, academic, or emotional endeavor. I have met people who generally dislike television, movies, and all kinds of additions to life that can range from undiscovered to life-consuming depending on the person. But I have never met somebody who, on the whole, dislikes music. Just like I’ve never met somebody who dislikes food, water, or breathing.

So I watched the film, touched to see these people touched by music, fascinated to see how universal and yet how personal music can be. But I wasn’t prepared for a moment that came at the very end.

In a montage of people hearing the music that touched them- a feeling that I had thought I was feeling with them- a new song came on: Blackbird. Reliving the memory, I don’t even know that I had a visual; the instant that I heard the first two notes, my body took in an involuntary gasp and I was sobbing, wailing, before the next note came out. I had thought that I understood before, but when I heard Blackbird I truly knew how music affects us so much more deeply and viscerally than we can comprehend.

I turn my iPod to shuffle when I’m lost and I want another power to decide for me what I need to hear. Often, the right song can touch me much more strongly than parts of my own religion. Could music, in fact, be like a religion to me? The thing in life that gives me hope and peace and connection and the belief that there is something more? I think so.

I got an angel to teach me Beatles and beat, to drive me to dance and to make the car move with the songs. I wrote him the music for You Are My Sunshine; he wrote me music for We Are The World. And when my angel knew that I understood, not long after I made “and in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me” a part of body, and very shortly after we recorded our own memories of and feelings about The Beatles into an archive (at which I said that I trusted that a person’s opinions about The Beatles would tell me all I needed to know about their character), he left me on my own.

But not really. Because my heart still has a beat, my voice still has sound, my iPod still sends me his music, my tattoo reminds me that he is always right in front of me. And when I hear Blackbird he is there to block out everything else and give me a moment alone with my heart. He is my angel, and music is my religion.

“The lord came to me, made me holy. I’m a holy man. So, he gave me these sounds.”


Everything Is Okay

It has always fascinated me that sometimes the people who need help the most are those who are the best at making it seem like everything is okay.

Do you know how many comedians suffer from clinical depression? I don’t, but I know that it’s a lot. In fact, let’s expand this thought. How many entertainers do you think suffer from some sort of mental illness? Don’t quote me, but I’m willing to bet the percentage is higher for them than it is for us non-famous people. Why? Because these are people who need to be seen, who need some kind of confirmation from others in order to feel okay. These are also people who have some sense of needing an escape from reality.

I recently watched Patch Adams, a movie that I recommend to anybody and everybody. Robin Williams stars in this true story about a man who was a little bit different. He wanted to help people, and he had a gift for understanding others and connecting with them through comedy. He wanted to be a doctor of the soul, in a way; he believed in treating the whole patient, not just their vital signs, in a time when this sort of thinking was very much frowned upon. Patch was misunderstood by quite a lot of people, but those who believed in him really, truly believed in him.

He had a huge heart, and sometimes it was so big that he got hurt: his best friend was killed by one of their patients in an attempt to meet the patient at his home and talk him out of hurting himself. Patch felt guilty, like he had been wrong all along, like he couldn’t go on. He even tried to quit. But one thing about having a big heart and helping a lot of people is that sometimes when you’re down, those people pick you back up again.

It was a little bit painful to watch Robin Williams in this role, given how close the film ultimately hits to home for him. Robin Williams is a great example of somebody who needed so badly to escape from what was inside him, and whose escape happened to bring others an incredible amount of joy. It also happened to make him look happy and successful and in control. To me, his death didn’t make sense: how could someone who made others so happy, someone who was such an incredible human being, be so unhappy with himself? He had a family, a career, he did something that it seemed like he loved. How did all of these things not add up to happiness?

I look back at Robin in possibly my favorite two roles of his- Patch Adams and Good Will Hunting- and I see a man who I don’t think was acting. I see someone who was gifted at helping others, but not himself. Someone who was self-deprecating, but in a funny way, so other people didn’t much mind. Someone who was a genius, and of course he was flawed, because what genius isn’t? I see his crooked smile, the one he gives with his eyebrows just a little bit furrowed, as if to say, “I’m trying my hardest to be happy, but please notice that I’m not.” The vulnerability is beautiful, and it’s incredibly tragic.

Why do I bring all of this up? Because hiding emotions behind a happy face didn’t only happen to Robin Williams. I see it all the time. The strongest people on the outside are sometimes the frailest on the inside. The people who are so great at helping others? Well, it may be because of how much they’ve had to help themselves. Empathy, humor, goodness, selflessness: all of these beautiful qualities often come attached to some kind of pain. I guess that’s life’s way of making sure that everyone knows what it’s like to hurt, so that the good times will feel that much better. At least that’s what I’d like to think.

Here’s to a man who taught us an important lesson: everybody, even the most talented or funny or wonderful person, needs somebody to ask them whether or not they’re okay. And another, maybe even more important: we are all allowed not to be.