You might have seen this quote before. It sums up how a lot of us feel when we’ve had to go through various kinds of adversity before finally achieving success, and suddenly when we are successful, the people who once ignored us now pretend to be our friends. If I ever get to the success part, I’ll let you know if I feel that way too. This quote serves as a reminder of the importance of sincere friendships and not viewing people with the expectation of getting something back from them.
There is some resonance here too with the children’s folk tale of “The Little Red Hen.” You might remember the story where the hen goes about the various tasks of preparing to make bread and all of her friends refuse to help. Then, of course, when the bread is ready, everyone is eager to eat it with her, but since they didn’t help her make it, she refuses to share her bread with them.
Taken to another extreme, it could easily be read as a threat. Coming from Will Smith or anyone else, it isn’t too hard to imagine them compiling a list of people who will be cut off as soon as the elusive fame and fortune arrive. Some might utter these words out of bitterness, some might, in the midst of their perseverance, claim these words as their own in an attempt to maintain their own dignity.
In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ passing, I started to wonder about this quote and the implications of rearranging it a little bit. There is often a stark contrast when public figures die in this way, between the massive outpouring of grief and support, and the utter loneliness that they were experiencing up to and during the time of their death. Everyone loved Robin Williams, so why did he die alone? Unfortunately, he chose to die alone, as members of his family and support staff were in the building when it happened. But it isn’t just that he died alone, but he died the way that he did because for a long time he felt alone. The public response has made it clear that throughout his career, Robin Williams made a lot of people happy. So, to use a phrase from the quote, many people were present during his success.
The question this presents then, is “What is our obligation if we have been present during someone’s success, when that person ultimately struggles?”
Will Smith’s threat becomes Robin Williams’ challenge. Will we continue to be present even when the success of our friends gives way to struggles? There is a limit to what struggles people will make us aware of, but there should not be a limit to our willingness to help.
Robin Williams was a kind of comic genius that we don’t often get to see. His kind of comedy was only possible because his mind comes up with images and ideas that the rest of us don’t have access to. That’s why we want to hang out with people like this, because they come up with things that would never cross our minds. Sadly though, that same mind also presented ideas and images to him that most of us have the good fortune of not understanding. But, our friendship, companionship and love need not be limited by our capacity to understand. There will be seasons in any relationship where we receive more than we give, but we should also accept, and even pursue, relationships where the opposite is the case.
If we are present during their success, let us not be absent in the struggles.