Three Lessons from a Modern-Day Pagliacci



I was both shocked and saddened to hear that Robin Williams, beloved actor and comedian, had committed suicide on Monday, August 11, 2014. The first time I watched Mrs. Doubtfire I howled with laughter, and thanks to a particularly delightful genie, Aladdin still stands as the most entertaining Disney cartoon ever made! “Why would he do this?” I asked myself.

After reading several newspaper articles, I began to discover that despite his wealthy upbringing, Williams had been struggling with personal demons for quite a while. He openly admitted to struggling with alcohol and cocaine, was on his third marriage attempt, had been made fun of as an overweight child, and was even voted as “Least Likely to Succeed” in high school.[1]

But perhaps the reason that this news has shocked us so badly, is that most of us never saw it coming. He seemed like such a happy soul, clowning around and causing the world to shriek with laughter. And then… this.

As I read one sobering news story after another, I couldn’t help but think of Canio, a fictional character from Leoncavallo’s beloved 1892 Italian opera, Pagliacci. The word pagliacci means “clown,” and tells the story of a man who makes a living at helping others laugh. When he discovers that his wife intends to leave him to run away with another man, however, he’s devastated. But as he faces this dark moment, his manager tells him to paint on a smile, because his audience is waiting. The result is the infamous aria, Vesti la giubba (“Put on the costume”), where Canio puts on his happy mask despite the fact that he is secretly heartbroken.



Vesti la giubba – from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, as performed by Pavarotti



Why has this opera survived the test of time and touched the hearts of millions? Because we can all relate to it. Wearing a mask while hiding our deepest hurts is something that all human beings can understand, because it’s something that we’ve all had to do at one point or another.

So what can we learn from all this? As I’ve reflected on this modern tragedy and the unfortunate human trend that it reflects, I’ve settled on three important lessons:


  1. All People Need Encouragement, Love, & Support

“They look wealthy, or happy, or like they’ve got it all together,” we tend to tell ourselves, and then we walk away. But just because a person is smiling on the outside does not mean they aren’t hurting like the rest of us.

We need to offer encouragement and support to everyone we meet, whether we think it is needed or not. John 13:34 simply says to “love one another,” and offers no conditions. It doesn’t say to only love the poor or the needy, or those who look just like us. No, we are commanded to love everyone, just as Christ loved the world.


  1. Warning Signs of Depression Should Be Taken Seriously

When we learn that a friend or neighbor has come down with cancer, we leap into action. We cook food for their family, shower them with gifts and cards, and pray for them daily. But when we hear that someone is struggling with depression, we tend to shrug it off. “They need to get over this,” we say. But depression is a serious ailment, one that heavily afflicted King Saul (I Samuel 16:23), and one that still haunts people from all walks of life today. In fact, I’d be willing to wager that everyone reading this post has had a close friend or relative touched by depression.

James 5:13-15 instructs God’s people to gather around those who are sick and pray for them, that they might experience healing and restoration through the power of answered prayer. Do we pray regularly for those struggling with depression in our lives? Perhaps we should.


  1. Jesus Understands Our Deep Struggles, and He Can Help Us Through Them

Robin Williams has gained attention because of his celebrity status, but countless men and women are giving up on life each and every day. It breaks my heart each time I hear one of these stories, and I just want to stand before the world and shout, “You’re not alone! Jesus knows what you’re going through, and He can help you!”

According to Hebrews 4:15-16, “Jesus understands every weakness of ours, because He was tempted in every way that we are.” Where support groups, friends, and five-step programs let us down, Jesus can meet us where we are and offer us true hope and healing.

Of course, you and I might know this… but have we shared it with others? We simply must do all we can to spread this message.

It really is a matter of life or death.



[1] Bernstein, Adam. “Comedian Williams Dead at 63.” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Tuesday, August 12, 2014.

Photo Credit:  “Pagliacciletras” by Sebasos.  Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

3 thoughts on “Three Lessons from a Modern-Day Pagliacci

  1. Very well said, John Mark. It’s a hard and sensitive subject to talk about (at least as evidenced by my Facebook feed the past couple of days). Though I haven’t dealt with clinical depression, I have several close loved ones who have struggled with depression greatly. I am convinced it is important to take any depression (or other mental illness) seriously. Thank you for writing so sensitively about this difficult topic in light of Robin William’s tragic suicide.


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