What we can learn from Robin Williams life and death

The untimely death of famed actor and comedian, Robin Williams, this past week came as a shock to us. The loss of this brilliant actor whom many described as a comedic genius left us shaking our heads in disbelief. How could such a bright and funny guy who created laughter around the world take his own life? The disparity between what he projected to the world and what he was apparently experiencing in his private life could remain a mystery, unless of course you play sports.

While I don’t presume to know the ultimate motivating factors in ending his life, his story reveals an undeniable reality: we all possess two selves. According to noted sports psychologist, Dr. James Loehr, in his ground-breaking book, The Only Way to Win, there is both performance character and moral character. Performance character is the side of us that comes forth when we are performing in a game. That character is described as tenacious, diligent, resilient, committed to a goal, persistent, focused, etc. These are the character traits that are necessary for any performer on the course or on the stage to be successful and win. It is what we project to the world.

Moral character is very different. Moral character isn’t about achieving. It is about relating. Words that describe moral character are being loving, honest, humble, giving, trusting, caring, integrity, etc. To acknowledge the existence of both kinds of character, especially if you are parent raising a competitive athlete or any kind of performer, is to gain an understanding of what creates wholeness in a person. I agree with Loehr that moral character far outweighs performance character, as it is moral character strengths that represent the basic core of what it means to be a fully functional, healthy human being.

Robin William’s struggle to weave these two kinds of character into an integrated whole serves as a wake-up call to all of us to not just achieve and perform, but to grow and be. Recently when I was watching two of the best women tennis players duke it out for the Wimbledon Championship, I heard a comment from the runner-up that reinforces my point. Referring to the crowd during the trophy presentation, she said, “The way I played today, I don’t know if I deserve all the love that you gave me.” I was stunned. Here was undoubtedly one of the top tennis players in the world who didn’t know she was loved apart from her score. She needed a new scorecard. So do we.

Some years ago I was caddying for a young boy during the U.S. Kids World Championship. He was seven years old and had the swing of a PGA tour player. He was absolutely exquisite to watch and was heralded as the top player from his state. After triple-bogeying the first hole, however, he stood behind the green and repeatedly exclaimed, “I hate myself. I hate myself. I hate myself.” Alarmed, I reported the boy’s reaction to his father, but he did not acknowledge my concern. He did not want to hear about the separation between his son’s performance character and moral character, a battle that already was raging within. What is that battle? The separation from one’s true self that results from a false definition of one’s value and identity. That father needed a new scorecard for himself and his son.

What can we learn from Robin Williams’ untimely and needless death? We can wake up to the reality that one’s true worth and value has nothing to do with one’s ability to perform, one’s giftedness or talent. We are valued and loved simply because we were made in the image of our Creator who has bestowed on us matchless worth as human beings. We can find harmony within ourselves as we intentionally create an intrinsic life-purpose—an ultimate mission– that cannot be lost, stolen, or altered from any outward circumstances, and that calls us to look beyond our own self-esteem for meaning.

As one who has struggled with depression most of her life because I falsely assumed that I was my golf score, I am now freed from that monster to be my transparent self. I have now integrated my performance character and my moral character into one expression of my soul. And while it has been a long, hard journey, I discovered my true self without drugs, alcohol, or other addictions. Along the way, I had my mental breakdowns especially during a season of extreme loss with no family support. However, I hung onto a higher code to being a true champion that will guide my life until my last breath: I will never surrender my spirit!

In the words of Henry David Thoreau: “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kinds of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

Although his death was tragic, I celebrate the reminder from Robin Williams’ life that we must all be the designer of our own scorecard, ask ourselves what makes our life really worth living, and be about the business of relentlessly swinging into life every day. FORE!

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