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The Ice Bucket Challenge, Robin Williams, and Lessons Learned

By Matt Mumber, Sep 12, 2014

The life and death of two prominent and beloved figures were brought into our national consciousness recently: Lou Gehrig and Robin Williams. They brought joy to the lives of others through their respective careers in the limelight—one a professional athlete and the other an entertainer. They died in different ways. Gehrig died slowly and methodically from an illness that now bears his name. Williams took his own life after a long struggle with depression, addiction, and perhaps a different chronic illness looming in his future.

Williams' death brought surprise and sadness. We still ride the ripples as the media presents his body of work and we experience anew all that his life’s work gives us. At the same time, Lou Gehrig’s disease has leapt forward in public awareness as nearly everyone with any kind of media connection participates in a fund raising effort called the Ice Bucket Challenge. Individuals and their families, who have firsthand experience of Lou Gehrig's disease, inspired this call to action.

What lessons can we learn from these experiences that we now share as a culture?

Life is humbling. It doesn't matter how successful you may be in the eyes of the world–life will present obstacles. These obstacles are gifts.

What if these humbling events are actually placed in our lives to lead us somewhere bigger? Somewhere that can only be reached when we move beyond our tried and true, usual patterns? What if they are lessons that can only be learned when we are shaken out of our customary way of living, thinking, and doing? Master teacher and Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr, says in his book, Falling Upward: "Sooner or later … some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower. Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources… you will and must 'lose' at something. This is the only way that Life-Fate-Grace-Mystery can get you to change... and go on the further, larger journey." These recent losses and reminders of our fragility may indeed be fertile ground for personal examination. They may provide a time when we can stop skimming along the surface of our lives and dive deep, allowing time and space for reflection. If we can bring our awareness to the sadness and pain, it can become a powerful teacher and an agent for change.

We are not alone.

Gehrig's famous speech at Yankee stadium still echoes with feeling: "For the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." He then goes on to give some reasons why. "When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that's something… When you have a mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that's something. When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body—it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that's the finest I know."

In times of struggle, we draw our strength from community. This community does not have to be a grand one, and our actions inside of it do not have to be grandiose. What is a community? It can be just you and one other person – living or dead. Those individuals who come in and out of our daily life, right in front of you, are enough. When we take the time to stop and to be present with a co-worker, a friend or a family member, we are in community. In this way, we can experience the meaning of the word “beloved” first hand, with all of its abundance. This word can be broken down into its two components "be loved." In community, we allow ourselves to be loved and we are open to giving that love to another.

Support can bring joy.

Pouring iced cold water over our head is a visible display of support for a cause. At a deep level, we do this in order to be of service, realizing that we are all equal in our humanity. The shock of cold water brings about a very real, physical reaction. What can we do on a daily basis that continues to show our very real support for those living with the shock and awe of difficult circumstances? Perhaps we can do this just by being there as equals–vulnerable, and without expectation or agenda.

L'Arche is an organization with international centers in which people with and without developmental disabilities share life in community. It is often those without the developmental disability who benefit significantly from the joy of seeing their own fragility mirrored in the eyes of those they support. Once we get past the differences that we see in each other, we can begin to celebrate and share our common humanity.

Perhaps as a culture we are ready to learn some new lessons. We can learn from the sadness we feel in the death of Robin Williams by being vulnerable to it, to find hope and community. We can open up to the joy and exhilaration that we feel by supporting a cause bigger than ourselves–with simple actions focused on those we share life with every day.

Perhaps we can find a way to be loved.

About the Author

Matt Mumber, MD is a radiation oncologist at the Harbin Clinic in Rome, Ga. Dr. Mumber has a special interest in integrative medicine, which combines evidence-based complementary modalities with conventional medicine to address the whole person on all levels of their being and experience.

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