Farewell, O Captain, My Captain

That they might have joy column by Jacki Wood for the Nodaway News Leader


From a very young age, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

There were many along my way who encouraged me. But it wasn’t until English teacher John Keating took to the screen in “Dead Poets Society” that I truly found the courage to do so.

And so, like so many others this week, I was deeply saddened to hear of the tragic passing of Robin Williams, who portrayed Keating in the movie.

The film ranks up there as one of my all-time favorites. Williams’ character was also referred to as “O Captain, My Captain” by his students, from Walt Whitman’s poem about Abraham Lincoln. And that is how I will forever remember Robin Williams.

There were so many other great characters and films, of course.

Aladdin, Patch Adams, Good Will Hunting, Jumanji, Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook, What Dreams May Come and Good Morning, Vietnam. The list goes on and on.

What a tremendous talent. And what a tremendous man.

Williams was also known for his philanthropic work including being an active supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

And, what a tremendous loss.

Much has been written about Williams already and I will not try to add more to what I know little about.

What I do know is that it’s impossible for most of us to imagine what he was going through, what living with a mental illness is like, unless you are dealing with it yourself. Even then, each circumstance is unique.

Following his death, I read a poignant essay from Zach Bloxham’s To the Wonder blog called “On Depression.”

Bloxham writes: “It is a sad symptom of humanity that those whose hearts are filled with so much laughter and love can also be filled with so much sadness and pain.”

He said: “Much more than simple sadness, depression chisels away at your very nature. You do not know why you are feeling what you are feeling, but the inability to find the genesis does not alleviate the depth of the distress. You find logic illogical and family nonfamilial. It is the darkest abyss of the soul. Depression morphs your past, clouds your present and blackens your future.”

Having dealt with these personally, he said: “Within weeks these feelings became inescapable. I wanted nothing more than to find a way to be free from their darkness. My brain began giving me answers I had never before contemplated.”

He continued: “The effects of depression are real and its clutches extend to each and every family you know. Depression is not a sign of personal weakness. Depression is not a condition that can be willed or wished away. Taken to its extreme, it cuts off life itself in horrible abruptness — men and women who should be alive but are not.”

Many times, it is the brilliant minds that are forced to bear this burden, not of just depression, but a myriad of other mental illnesses. Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, Charles Dickens, van Gogh, Winston Churchill and so many more.

I’m reminded of the words written by former US Sen. Gordon Smith about his son, Garrett, who tragically took his own life at a young age.

He said, “It is hard for me to fathom how anguished and tormented a soul he had become, how hopeless and alone he felt in mind and spirit… If you’ve never been swallowed by that infinite bleakness and hopelessness that accompanies manic depression, it’s almost impossible to imagine.”

Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, who also suffers from bipolar disorder, has said that suicide has the “ability to undermine, overwhelm, outwit, devastate and destroy” people.

It has taken another life. Another life cut short by the savagery that is mental illness.

Farewell, O Captain, My Captain. You inspired me. And you will be missed.

If you need help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is there for you: 1-800-273-TALK.

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