O Captain! My Captain!

DPSI was barely a teenager enjoying something that I hardly ever got to do – I was at the movies.

No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.

Usually I got bored at the movies but this time, for maybe the first time in my life, I was being truly affected by what I was watching.

You must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!

My first “activism” happened in kindergarten. I got my class to boycott nap time, pounding our little fists on the desk chanting “We want to learn!  We want to learn!”  My teacher sent home a report card that said “Ragen is an excellent student, but she leads small revolts.”  I explained to my mom that I involved my whole class so I didn’t see how it could have been any bigger, and my poor mom had to explain that the teacher wasn’t suggesting that my revolt was too small. I was constantly getting in trouble for standing up for what I believed in, standing up to bullies, standing up for other kids, wanting to try to do things that adults insisted were impossible, and generally displaying characteristics that would have been valued if I was 20 years old instead of 6. My long suffering mother was at the school what seemed like every other week until I graduated – supporting me, defending me, showing me how to be an advocate.

Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go,”that’s baaaaad.” Robert Frost said, “Two roads diverged in the wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Sitting in that theater, watching that movie, it all came crashing in – the kind of person I was striving to be, and why.

O Captain! my Captain!

As I sat in the dark theater, sobbing as the credits rolled, I knew for sure that I wanted to spend the rest of my life standing on desks, inspiring others to stand on desks or, preferably, doing both at the same time.  I went home and wrote down the quotes I could remember on index cards, starting with these two:

Oh to struggle against great odds, to meet enemies undaunted.

To mount the scaffold. to advance to the muzzles of guns with perfect nonchalance!

It was the start of a collection of quotes that would eventually be stored, handwritten, on hundreds of index cards.  I would add to it whenever I heard something that inspired me – poetry, a passage from a book, a famous quote, song lyrics, whatever.  I would read them when living in small towns with small-minded people where I never really fit in became overwhelming, and then in college when the work I was doing as a young queer activist seemed too daunting, too dangerous, or simply impossible. I have them, and read them, to this day.

The movie, Dead Poets Society, was also my introduction to Robin Williams, whose talent I was awed by. I became a great fan of his work – acting, comedy, late show appearances, Saturday Night Live – I would watch anything with him in it.  He was on my dream list of people to take to lunch. When I heard that he passed away I was incredibly sad. Even more so when I learned that it was suicide likely linked to depression. Sadder still when I saw people discuss it in ways that suggest that they don’t understand depression. To me it’s a reminder of what can happen when we as a society ignore, blame, stigmatize, and fail to make treatment options accessible to, people dealing with depression and other mental illnesses.

Rest in Peace Robin Williams, and thank you.

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22 thoughts on “O Captain! My Captain!

  1. I had a college professor recommend this movie to me. He recommended it to our whole class, but I know he was thrilled when I came into his office and told him I’d finally had the opportunity to see it. When I told him I was tempted to get up on his desk and say, “O Captain, my captain,” he replied by pushing away from his desk and saying, “Go right ahead.” To have one of my favorite college professors forever linked to Robin Williams via this movie is a joy to me. To have lost this link saddens me, and I hope this opens up doors of communication to discuss depression and other mental health issues without stigma.

  2. I spent yesterday alternating between tears and laughter. Your post just bought the tears back full force and now I am blubbering again about the loss of one of the worlds greatest actors and comedians.

  3. Thank you for this post. Your retelling of your childhood activism made me laugh out loud during these days of sadness.

  4. You have definitely inspired me, Regan, even if my desk is made of digital data and not wood. And I spend a fair amount of time yesterday on said digital desk railing against people who were calling Robin Williams selfish, or weak, or questioning what he had to be depressed about. I only hope my words have the ability to inspire others to climb up on their desks, too.

    1. That really bothered me too. One news anchor even called him a coward, though he apologized later.

      I have been suicidal several times in my life when depression became uncontrolled. Those who have not experienced that type of pain, despair and hopelessness simply have no comprehension of how truly unbearable it is. So of course they speak from ignorance.

      Robin Williams brought a great deal of joy and laughter to millions of people. That is the legacy he leaves behind,

  5. What a wonderful legacy Robin Williams has left. He inspired you, and you have gone on to inspire so many people in so many ways. I haven’t watched the film, I will make a point of doing so

  6. You are inspiring. I, too, am saddened that someone who gave so much joy to others could not reach out for help in the depths of his depression. Society fails to appreciate so many silent illnesses. I will miss his brilliance.

  7. While I have never felt the anguish of suicidal thoughts, I have spent much of my life learning about it. My father committed suicide when I was 11. I remember vividly the feelings of being a survivor of a family member’s suicide. And while I cannot begin to fathom what the despair must feel like, the crushing weight, as I have heard it explained.

    It is amazing to me, the callousness with which some people disregard depression and suicide.

    Robin Williams touched so many lives, I feel a personal loss, and feel strongly for his loved ones. I have an idea of what they are going through, except it must be so much worse with the press. The talking heads and people on social media speaking through their asses anger me.

    Rest in peace, gentle man.

  8. When I heard the news, the only thing I could even think to do was sit down and watch my personal fave Robin Williams film, The Fisher King. The tears came thick and fast. First they came from sorrow at the loss of this amazing man. Then they came from laughter at some of his best comic moments ever. Then they came from love for a man lost in the labyrinth of his own mind. It may have been Robin, it may have been Perry… but it was most likely both of them. By the end I was still crying, but in gratitude for all the wonderful moments, and with love for the whole damn tangled human race.

    Robin Williams was one of a kind. He could make the most bizarre things seem perfectly reasonable. He managed to turn Lydia the Tattooed Lady into a tender love song and How About You? into a weapon of war. He showed us the sorrow behind every laugh, and the humor in pain.

    Whatever he did, he did it unexpectedly and with amazing gusto. Best of all, in some ways, he was completely frank about his struggles with addiction and with depression. We need more people like him to come forward and help break down the stigma surrounding mental illness.

    And I am grateful that I lived in a world with Robin Williams in it.

  9. Rest in peace, Robin. I am so sorry that you felt that you had to leave us & even sorrier that some people are so insensitive to your pain & your illness. Your beloved daughter has had to leave Twitter because of the abuse heaped on her, & that makes me angry & sad & worried about this species of which I am a member. But I know that there has been a much greater outpouring of love & compassion & a shared grief for a man whom many loved. I just wish that we were all better at sharing our pain, at reaching for help & support when it is needed, & at reaching out to those whom we may help. I have a depressed, alcoholic son who has lost his job & who struggles every day. I hope that my love is helping him & that he will decide to work to get better before it’s too late. And I wish that you had reached out one more time. You are missed, you are loved, & all you have left behind is much appreciated. I hope that your pain has ended now.

  10. The last sentence of Josh Charles’ tweet about Robin Williams brought tears to my eyes: “Standing on my desk for you, always.”

  11. One of the rarest of human beings – he will be greatly missed for a very very long time. There are countless people morning for the loss and many feel it on such a personal and deep level. How telling it is of how great of a man he was, that so many of us feel a PERSONAL loss of a man that most of us never even had the pleasure of meeting.

    I’ve seen a lot of celebrity type people die in my 35 years of living, several of whom I’ve been HUGE fans of. None of them has hit me THIS hard or made me feel like I’ve lost someone that I have loved. My heart aches and I’ve been crying on and off since I heard about his passing. It feels like I’ve lost a dear and lifelong friend.

    Thank you, Ragen for the lovely and inspiring post. It was so wonderful to hear about how you got started on this path, and awesome that Robin Williams played a part in that. Thank you for sharing this with us!

  12. The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

    I feel like a huge, wonderful part of me just dropped away into the universe. But I refuse to give credence to the “it’s such a waste” statements floating around out there. His life was NOT a waste. It was full, rich, giving, and wonderful for anyone associated with it. And he chose the hour of his death, something very few can claim.

    That’s the way I see. Probably not PC or morally accurate, but I can’t suddenly condemn a person for whom I have always had immense respect and love.

  13. That we’d one of the best movies ever. Ever.
    My sadness and grief over his desperation has broken my heart.
    I truly hope people will open their minds to understanding depression and mental health.
    Maybe if they were to acknowledge their own, they would understand others; and with that they might have some compassion for both.

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