Last night I lost one of my comedic heroes, Robin Williams. Of course I didn’t know him and had only seen him on screen, but considering how many movies and tv shows he has done that have made up my childhood I’ve probably spent more time listening to him than with some friends. A lot of celebrities die, but this may be one of the few that really effected me. I remember just around this time last year when Williams returned to television in The Crazy Ones thinking how good he looked and how he appeared to be clean and on top of his game. I have no idea what was going on behind the scenes. I hear he was in another rehab program and may have fallen back into drug use after the show was cancelled. It’s all speculation though.
When Paul Walker died I wrote a story on the publicity and reaction to celebrity deaths. Walker, while a fine actor, was much younger and lesser known than Robin Williams. I think that article is even more important and pertinent with Williams death.
As is typical, other very well meaning people are a bit upset that this gets so much attention compared to other deaths around us every day. Questions like, “Why should we grieve this guy more than the soldier that died or the DWI victim” arise often. Then there are even memes to show people’s frustration with this paradigm.
I get it. It certainly seems like thousands of deaths deserve a much greater reaction than a single actor that you don’t know right?
Perhaps, but the truth is that is not the way our brains operate. We simply can’t comprehend that much tragedy and so it simply becomes a statistic in our mind. We have some grief, but it’s just another in an ongoing line of death.
Comedian Eddie Izzard even has a joke about it on how we deal with mass murderers. “You’ve killed 100,000 people. Well done then. You must get up very early in the morning.”
Joseph Stalin was right about something. “When one man dies it is a tragedy, when thousands die it’s a statistic.”
When it comes to the deaths of celebrities, most notably last year with Paul Walker and Cory Monteith, we do see a lot more out pouring. Why is that? It is because we can grasp that loss and we can understand that their story is over. The loss of millions is a number, but the loss of one person is the loss of their story.
You see, we can feel connected to a story. We even feel a part of it with celebrities because we’ve watched it grow and change. It’s like we were a part of their life even if only as an observer. With their death, not only has their life ended, but their story as well.
Great communicators must understand this. Whether you’re President Obama trying to increase gun control by telling a story of victims of violence or someone like Suzanna Gratia Hupa testifying for less gun control, they both use stories and people can connect with them.
If you want to get people to assist hungry children you don’t tell them about the billions in need. Instead you tell them about Karen in Honduras digging through the trash.
This is also why we cry over the death of our favorite television, movie, or novel characters.
These stories connect with people. That bring out compassion and joy and sorrow. They change minds and hearts.
So when you see that people are grieving the loss of a celebrity don’t think it because they don’t care about others, but realize that it is because people do care and they feel connected to their story.
So why not take that and go be a part of making someone else’s story a little bit better. Make your story matter.