Robin Williams was a man of great intellectual depth and many diverse talents. He burst on the scene as the quirky, but engaging Mork on the TV series Mork and Mindy in the late 1970’s. It was clear even then that his talent was bigger than the small screen could contain, and he quickly made the transition to the big screen in films that brought him great acclaim (Dead Poet’s Society, Awakenings, Good Morning, Vietnam, and What Dreams May Come, to name a few) as a serious actor, writer, and producer.
Williams, a graduate of Julliard, began his career as a stand-up comedian. His style was unique: rapid-fire, insightful, and always extremely funny with the undercoating of serious truths lying just beneath the humor.
Early in Williams’ career, he battled the same demons of drug and alcohol abuse that seem to disproportionately haunt the most talented among us mere mortals. He successfully overcame both, but I am inclined to believe that the years of substance abuse were a contributing factor to his development of Lewy Body dementia in the couple of years of his life.
It is hard at times to read (I saw many things there that I saw in my own mom’s Lewy Body dementia), but it captures the essence of Lewy Body dementia in real time in a way I have not seen described before.
Robin Williams, unable to continue to humanly fight the unseen, but increasingly-threatening terrorist that had permanently taken his brain hostage, took his own life on August 11, 2014.
So this post is not about end-of-life planning, but instead about while-you’re-still-alive fixing.
Each of us is limited to what we personally can fix in our family relationships, but, when it’s all said and done, the real fixes that each of us needs to make are within ourselves.
There has not been a non-dysfunctional family since Adam and Eve, so the first thing we need to do is reset our expectations of being surrounded all our lives by perfect people who do all the right things all the time.
And we should recognize that we wouldn’t survive being surrounded by perfect people because none of us is perfect.
Here’s a reality check for all of us. People screw up. People make mistakes. People fall way short of any semblance of perfection.
I know this will be shocking to read, but guess what? So do you. And so do I.
And the three things within family dynamics that throw monkey wrenches into the best-laid plans for death are related to our imperfections as human beings. They are attitudes and mindsets that only each of us can change within ourselves.
The three monkey wrenches are grudges, greed, and grievousness. They are likely already at work in our families and family dynamics and have been for some time. Death and all that goes with it will just take them to a whole new level that will break everything wide open.
Grudges are things that we believe have been done to us by other people to harm us and hurt us. The attitude and mindset of grudges is that we hold these real or perceived wrongs against those people for as long as we live and we refuse to forgive them.
Grudges are extant in families and in family dynamics. And it shows up in the reactions to how stuff – the material things – get dispersed (or taken without anyone else knowing long before a death).
When family members believe they were cheated out of something they deserved or were entitled to (the truth is we’re owed nothing and we’re entitled to nothing because we didn’t do anything to acquire the stuff that’s in dispute), their complaints are a litany of all the grudges they hold against every other family member (and these can go back almost to birth).
Family members with grudges like to enlist company, so they actively work to divide the family by trying get other family members to agree with them (validate their grudges) and turn on family members who don’t agree.
This will rip the family apart. And, many times, the tear is so extensive that it cannot be put back together at all.
The second monkey wrench is greed. When stuff and material things matter more than anything else on earth, then greed is the attitude and mindset at work. Greed wants everything and wants to share nothing with anyone else.
Greed also is present in families and family dynamics. Look around at the members of your family. Look at yourself.
Which of your family members cares the most about appearances of affluence? Which ones are always on a mission to have the best stuff, the most expensive stuff, the latest stuff, and the most stuff?
Are there competitions under the surface – or right out there in the open – between family members to outdo each other in the stuff department? Are you one of those family members?
I can guarantee it’s somewhere in every family. Wherever it is, greed is the attitude and mindset. And it will take over when it’s time for estates to get settled (many times it starts long before then) and it will also rip the family apart. And that will likely be irreparable.
The last monkey wrench is grievousness. Grievousness is anything that is intentionally done or said to inflict pain and cause grief to other people. It too is an attitude and a mindset.
Grievousness also is replete within families and family dynamics. It seems that there is always at least one family member who is determined to intentionally cause pain and grief to the rest of the family members. They seem to get a perverse satisfaction out of the pain and the grief they cause, often crowing over it and recounting it as a glorious thing again and again for anyone who will listen.
Grievousness is vindictiveness and vengefulness. The attitude and mindset reflects a desire to crush other people for the fun of it and also to bask in the “victory” of how much damage was done.
If we want to change our family dynamics and remove the monkey wrenches of grudges, greed, and grievousness, we have to change our attitudes and mindsets.
Grudges need to be forgiven. Holding something (real or imagined) against a family member for life and not letting it go (it doesn’t mean you forget and you’re not aware if it’s real, but you let go of the hurt and the anger about it) says more about us than it does about the other members of our family.
It shows that we are unforgiving and that if anyone else in our lives does or says something that we perceive as wronging us or hurting us, they will not be forgiven either.
Being a grudge-holder drives people away because nobody wants to be in a position where there is no forgiveness when they screw up, because we all do.
Grudge-holders tend to have a series of short-lived really-hot-then-suddenly-cold relationships as a pattern in their lives. The pattern looks like this: as soon as they develop a grudge against someone, they drop the person as if they never existed, and they move on to someone new, until that person screws up, and on and on.
If we’re grudge-holders, then we need to change. We need to forgive and we need to let our families know – we don’t have to say anything, because our actions will show it – that we’ve forgiven all the things we were holding against them.
Greed needs to be eliminated by putting life into perspective. Stuff is just stuff. It can’t hold you, it can’t love you, it can’t care about you. All it can do is wear out, break down, and eventually end up on a garbage heap.
It’s ironic that in families where there is greed among its members that all the stuff that they’re so desperate to acquire at the risk of everything else eventually ends up in boxes or basements or attics where it is never touched again.
We need to let go of our intense attachments to stuff and work on rebuilding our attachments to the people we love, who in the long run, are our only physical saving graces. When those people are gone, they’re gone, and no amount of stuff will ever take their place or fill the void they’ve left behind.
Grievousness needs to be replaced with gentleness and kindness. Hurting other people intentionally and reveling in the fact that we’ve caused people pain and grief is a reflection of our own mindset and attitude of hate.
This hate transfers all blame, responsibility, and accountability for our own words and actions – and we know those aren’t always perfect or good – onto the people we hurt and gloat about seeing in the grief and pain that follows.
I challenge each of us to look deeply and carefully and honestly at ourselves within the context of our families and our family dynamics and see if we personally have the attitudes and mindsets of grudges, greed, and grievousness.
And if we find any, some, or all of these within ourselves, then I give us the biggest challenge of all: to change them, starting today.
There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens when a person begins to change their attitudes and mindsets. The people with whom that person’s life intersects will start changing too.
Only you and I can decide whether that change will be for better or for worse.