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Don’t Make Assumptions: Lessons from Robin Williams’ (and other's) Beautiful Lives and Tragic Deaths

Don Miguel Ruiz’s brilliant little book, The Four Agreements, has weighed heavily on me for a few years now. It has inspired more contemplation and reflection than most, and even inspired my own piece on the 2nd agreement, Don’t Take Anything Personally. The recent news of Robin Williams’ tragic death has many bewildered over such a bright, vibrant and funny personality succumbing to such darkness. And it is the onslaught of opinions and reactions that has me reflecting on the 3rd agreement, Don’t Make Assumptions.

Years of memes and quote sharing has helped us all see, even for a brief moment, that we never know the struggle of another, that we’re all winding our own weird path, often filled with deep pain and sadness, and there’s no way to know another’s plight unless we walk in their shoes. And we simply can’t. It’s impossible. And even within our closest loved ones, it is difficult to empathize and even understand their pain.

I do not personally struggle with addiction. That is not how my darkness manifests. It would be arrogant for me to assume to know the depth of pain, solitude, and endless confusion one might be enduring every single day to just survive. It would be just as arrogant for me to assume the whys and hows of one struggling with depression and anxiety, something I do have personal experiences with, both within my own psyche and as an outsider attempting to help loved ones.

We make assumptions about others, the reasons for their behaviors, the backstory to their pain in an attempt to square away some cognitive dissonance in ourselves. We don’t want to believe that sadness can cut so deep that fame, fortune and adoration cannot elevate it. We can’t fathom a loneliness so potent that a person surrounded by love isn’t somehow at the same time filled with that love within.

All the beauty in the world and all the examples and demonstrations of love simply aren’t enough. It is one thing to see, it is quite another to feel, understand and live in the truth of it. And often our forays into both lightness and dark are attempts to understand and receive glimpses of just that: Love.

Out of respect for our fellow humans we should make no assumptions about their lives. As innate as it feels to analyze thoughts and actions, it serves no one to draw conclusions based on nothing but our own mental machinations. And out of concern for our own sanity we should also make no assumptions about why someone is behaving in a certain way, whether it directly affects us or not. Easier said than done but the wiser choice.

Similar to not taking anything personally, often when we assume the truth of another it is merely a projection and reflection of how we feel about ourselves. Most human beings fall into the trap of making something about ourselves, allowing ourselves to feel offended, hurt, misunderstood or forgotten simply from assumptions created by our own minds.

Here are a few examples you may have heard yourself or another say:

“Why would she look at me like that? She must…”

“Why won’t he text/call/message me back? It’s because…”

“I haven’t heard back so I probably didn’t get in/win/make it/etc.”

“They’re just being a jerk because they’re jealous.”

“They had a leg up because their more attractive/rich/popular than I am.”

“They’ve been gone a while. They must have diarrhea.”

That last example was just for levity, but you get my drift. I’ve fallen into these patterns of assumption so many times, too many times to even count. We’ve all most likely, at some point in our lives, been on the giving and receiving ends of assumptions. And at neither time does it feel good, does it satisfy whatever discomfort we’re trying to dissolve. It simply keeps our minds stirring, distracted from real life, pulled away yet again from the present moment.

The questions and statements above are very generic and broad, obviously we can get much more specific, detailed and often mean in our assumptions. And with the case of Robin Williams’ death and the tragic happenings of many other people we feel (assume) we know, the unkind and presumptive thoughts that suicide is selfish or cowardly, there must have been some lack of gratitude or perspective, or that there were any real choices in the matter are more reflective of those judging than those whose lives we’re carving hypotheses about.

Often the line between darkness and light is quite thin. And those providing the most light and levity frequently deal with deep, private darkness. As one who considers herself a bit of a comedy nerd, I've learned how many of those most talented are engulfed in crippling depression, anxiety and dread.

And I think many of you are aware of similar occurrences within Yoga.

It is my own experiences with darkness that led me to Yoga, a practice and career that I feel balances me, helps me share mere moments, lessons and aspects of light I wish I felt more. And sharing those experiences does just that; helps me feel. More.

My parents divorced when I was young. As sadly common as it was and still is, being the only child of my biological parents made the experience feel endlessly confusing, sad and lonesome. This caused many sleepless nights drowning in the depths of assumption. Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood I doubted real love existed, certainly didn't expect to feel it myself. And it is precisely through art, films like Mrs. Doubtfire, practices like Yoga and Meditation, and raw, honest comedy that I was first able to glimpse real light and real love.

I hope Robin Williams can truly rest now knowing he provided so much joy and light to an often dark world. Don't be afraid to reach out, friends. Hug someone. Tight. Let assumptions lie. And as Robin brilliantly said, “You’re only given a little spark of madness, you mustn’t lose it.”

Nut Up or Shut Up: A Non-Poem About Living, Now

Desire, need, desperation to win, achieve or prove something to ourselves or others will drain us of our innate power.An energetic and intense focus on mastering this moment and trusting the future will unfold well will manifest as an invigorating existence void of mind-made stress and anxiety. If we realized what was actually, truly, genuinely important we’d start grabbing life by the balls and living it, with vigor, instead of letting our minds and egos keep us passively avoiding death, creating enemies where they do not exist, trapped each day in the psychological past and future, rather than the psychedelic beauty that is the present fucking moment. Being alive is a gift. It is intrinsically (awe)some and our past does not have to define us, imprison us or hold us captive in the myth of time. Defining ourselves by words and thoughts alone imprisons our imagination and potential in an ever narrowing tunnel whose light diminishes exponentially the more staunchly we adhere to these descriptors. We are not our past, our age, our socioeconomic class, our political affiliation, our nationality, our bank statement, our marriage license, our job title, our perceived reputation, our diploma, our ethnicity, our opinions or our engrained moral ideology. We are life meant to be lived, realized, awakened, aware, enthusiastic, joyful, impassioned, fortunate beings. We get to be humans here and now. These short years aren’t meant to be wasted feeling inferior or superior, successful or inadequate, attractive or unattractive. Whether physical or mental, we should stop wasting our lives in hatred of what is, of what we cannot change, in us or in others. We owe it to our individual mind, body and heart to get over ourselves (our egos) and our preconditioned habits and beliefs, and bring acceptance, passion and exuberance into getting the most out of each moment and each day. This isn’t confined to a specific set of rules or way of life. We can and should pursue any myriad of career paths with gusto, enjoy the fruits of our labor, work within our own moral and ethical parameters, be cool with people and don’t take melodrama seriously. Enjoy the ride, be fluid and in the flow of life instead of awkwardly rigid, working tirelessly to avoid trouble that only exists in the meaningless anxiety created by excessive thinking. This reality is about taking responsibility and control of how we approach day-to-day life, how we perceive information and the events that encompass our days, and what our lingering effect is after the day is done. How did this approach to life affect us and those around us? When we daydream of our future success how does life look during the years committed to achieving those goals and rewards? Are they riddled with what-ifs, major sacrifices, stress and a fixation with attaining the next promotion, raise, notoriety or form of success that lies outside of ourselves? More simply stated, will our level of daily enjoyment and happiness be affected for many years if we follow these rules and steps? What constitutes each rung of this metaphorical ladder? Can we enjoy wherever we currently are in our careers, whatever level of expertise or income, and allow the external forms of success to be a bonus but not the reason for our personal contentment or self-esteem? That is the key to looking back at our lives knowing we truly lived it. We didn’t sweat ridiculous nonsense, define ourselves by other's expectations or material acquisition. We breathed with reverence each day and used that grateful, inspired energy to execute our lives at a higher, more alertly present level. We navigated both calm and troubled waters with patience, humility and grace. And hopefully a sense of humor. This may seem very cerebral, intense and complex, but it is not. Let's drop the bullshit, own up to our thoughts, words and actions. Let others be and don’t hesitate or doubt being ourselves. Nut up or shut up. Live and let live. Go take an embarrassingly large bite out of life.

Comedic Inquisition: WTF with Marc Maron

It’s been many months since I wrote about a podcast, although I casually mention them when I write about comedy, which seems to happen weekly now, but I’ve been inspired lately by many, choosing to listen to interviews and discussion over music. I also seek it out, and as I’ve mentioned with music and fashion and other art-forms, I do the opposite. So clearly I’m wrangling on some sort of addiction here, but it feeds my soul so much and fills me with this strange hope and belief that I can foster whatever form of satire I’m pursuing into something worthwhile. The top of the list for me is What The Fuck (more notably, WTF) with long-time stand-up Marc Maron. Marc is a comic’s comic. If you enjoy stand-up comedy and have followed the movement even loosely over the past couple decades then you should know who he is. I’d be willing to bet many of you don’t simply because you’re living normal lives, not obsessing over weird podcasts and the intricacies of humor. Leave that to geeks like me. The staple in choosing what to write about comes from an enthusiasm placed in my brain that I then want to share, ultimately to a public who doesn’t give a fuck. But my hope is those who are reading this do, and even if you don’t listen, you’re now aware of this existence, of this phenomenon that is podcasting and how much great content there is now via this medium.

Marc is in his late 40’s. He’s lived everywhere a comic should live, now settling in Southern California, still touring clubs like genetically motivated comedians do, and frequently now conducting interviews out of his garage, with some of the best comedic artists of our time, from many decades ago through today. Since I was a kid, watching old Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, and Richard Pryor films (there are many more you can fill in, Steve Martin, Dan Akroyd, etc.), I longed to get to know these people better, know them for who they really are. A far-fetched notion and dream, but I felt their stand-up, sketch performances or film/TV roles, coupled with interviews on Johnny Carson provided a glimmer into their psyche, into how they became who they were. Sometimes it was not a pretty picture, and for others, it proved to be very enlightening and encouraging. Nothing I’ve seen in the past has provided the depth of background into these human beings like WTF, and for that reason, I am addicted.

Marc’s stand-up has evolved into this self-effacing, abrasive, intelligent rant, daring you to dislike him as much as he dislikes himself. He seems to be a man of integrity, painfully honest regarding his mistakes and past and present forms of psychosis, and seems easily nonconformist, not adhering to cultural role-playing or our societal script. In the beginning of the WTF podcast, Marc takes us through his current metamorphosis and growth, either via the description of who he’s interviewing that day, how that person has affected him or merely his take on them as a comedic artist, and ultimately how certain psychological revelations has informed and manifested into his comedy and his interaction with others. Or he may simply be experiencing some personal challenge, whether it be a relationship, an encounter on the road, or just too much time alone. I resonate with how his mind seems to work. He’s constantly questioning, wondering, dissecting and exploring the inner workings of his and others’ minds. On top of his insight, he knows his shit. He comes from an important class of comedians, knows deeply the inner workings of comedy legends and the lesser known artists also involved during each era and therefore he’s a part of a very small cluster of human beings that can call themselves comics. Stand-up is his forte but Marc is aware and involved with comedic artists of varying genres and so the beautiful conversations that emerge are beyond informative, cut much deeper than entertaining and are a catalyst for epiphanies and growth as an artist and a human being.

This seemingly natural wordiness and inquisitive mind leads Marc to be an excellent conversationalist, beyond what we see as a smart interview or a top-notch journalist, Marc very casually and effortlessly takes his cohort on a ride through the depths of comedy, the why and how, exposing the truth and meat of every story. He typically starts at the beginning of their careers, taking a linear road trip with occasional stops to let what is clearly an interesting and very genuine moment unfold. We learn how artists, both well-known and practically unknown, became who they are at this moment, how familial, religious, political, geographical, psychological influences made a mark on how their journey transformed, how their careers evolved, grew or stifled, through peaks and valleys. Naturally, the most memorable episodes of WTF are not with well-known comics everyone already loves, although those provide insight and previously unknown information as well, but for me the interviews with artists I was either completely unaware of or only vaguely familiar were so pleasantly surprising and thought-provoking.

Marc has referred to himself as a farm-team comic, alluding to perhaps his perceived mid-level of success in the comedic world. Similar to some truly remarkable music, film, painting and other art out there, your level of value and success is often determined by your financial worth, your level of fame, the amount of twitter followers you’ve acquired or some other arbitrary measure of achievement. It should be obvious that despite this lack of millions, in dollars or followers, Marc and many other artists out there have been propelling some genius, unique work for a long time. And I believe it’s because he hasn’t risen to a Dane Cook level that he continues to progress and is now changing our world with such a special podcast. Sure there are certain “stars” he’s excited to interview or hopeful to get into his garage, but he knows more than anyone the depth of talent out there deserving of a conversation with him. The podcast has catapulted him to more fame, more followers, potentially more money, but he remains true to the club comic scene and to his objective as a podcaster.

The podcast has opened my eyes and delved me deeper into my comedy geek world, but it’s also affected my depth as a human being. I’m grateful to know more about so many artists I already respected and to have the exposure to dozens more I never knew. Recently, I’ve re-listened to episodes with those we’ve lost, Patrice O’Neal specifically. I cried, actual tears, upon not only hearing the news of Patrice’s stroke, but in particular hearing the sad news of his passing. These artists, and Patrice in particular, are as one of a kind as you can get. Him, Marc and others deserve more success than this difficult world has given them but they’ve retained their integrity and a painful level of honesty, disguising harsh truths in the most clever, wise jokes. They give me hope and courage. If I can be true to myself in my endeavors as a teacher, writer and human being, then I can feel less like a rat in the race and more of a success internally, and hopefully the external will show itself eventually.

I find it confusing and daunting to process just how important comedy is to me and the world. There are people I know fairly well, who I’d never wish any ill-will or negativity of course, but who’ve left for whatever reason and I felt sad for their loved ones and them personally, but held no sadness within myself. I’ve never met Patrice, Marc and many other comedians out there, but their impact on me has been nothing short of profound, and with the podcast, we not only get to know those we already love and respect even better, but we also remember them, honor them and have a format to share them with others. And that is a damn gift. It makes you ponder your own impact and inspires you to absorb more and to have the courage to influence in your own positive way. It is my dream to meet these artists and have my own conversations someday, and because of this incredible podcast, the bar is set high and I’m grateful to have learned and been affected by this.

This podcast has well over 200 episodes and is free, with many avenues to subscribe. There's also an excellent app for iPhones and Droids. I'll warn you, it's addictive, but in the best way.

Listen. Actively. Reflect. Laugh. Project. Enjoy.