He was a groundbreaking filmmaker. As well as my dad. It’s not uncomplicated… ”Sr.” is a documentary that tells the story of Robert Downey’s maverick rise in NYC, his crash, burn and redemption in Hollywood and our relationship in the aftermath. Only on Netflix, December 2nd. pic.twitter.com/uQBWIHmfFw
— Robert Downey Jr (@RobertDowneyJr) November 3, 2022
In the last five minutes of his documentary, “Sr.,” Robert Downey Jr. said two sentences that changed everything for me.
It was soon after his father, the maverick filmmaker and actor Robert Downey Senior, had died, and when the younger Downey searches to find the meaning of their joint project (now playing on Netflix).
He tells us the message of the documentary is this:
“We’re here, we do stuff, and we’re gone. I love him for what he did and I love him for what he didn’t do.”
Downey Jr. says that their film, which was shot during the last three years of the elder’s life, is not a father/son story. And he didn’t mention that it was about relationships, addiction, or generational trauma, as I thought he would.
Initially, I didn’t understand the simplicity of his statement. I felt those two lines shortchanged the dynamics of their father/son relationship, their affinity for the other’s offbeat humor, and their separate but related addiction battles.
I wanted him to add to the part where he says, “We do stuff.” The lives we live and our interactions seem so much more complicated than boiling them down to doing stuff. I wanted him to include specifics, sentiments, depth, and clarity. I wanted his words to feel as poignant and personal as their film, and yet his words felt somewhat indifferent.
I figured Downey Jr. was grieving and the words must have eluded him. But then, those two lines he spoke in the wake of his father’s death kept replaying in my head, over and over—and for several days.
I re-watched the film and hearing him say them for the second time hit hard. I realized it was the neutrality with which Downey Jr. relays his message that I had missed and undervalued.
Later I understood that what he had said was actually said so beautifully and, for me, his words were life-altering.
I came to see that of course there are contexts, rationales, and consequences beneath the stuff we do, and it’s no wonder that I was looking for it in his wording. But in hindsight, or from a wider view, most of our doing isn’t well thought out or entirely intentional. We are only human—messy, reactive, impulsive, and imperfect.
Downey Jr. seems to subtly imply that we suffer on top of our suffering because we believe behavior is overtly purposeful. In other words, we assume there’s negligence, ulterior motives, or good or bad intent, and so we over-complicate our relationships and much of our thinking.
In the film, Downey Sr. expresses regret for exposing his son at a young age to a culture of drugs and alcohol; his shame and guilt are palpable at that moment.
But from Downey Jr.’s “stuff we do” perspective, it was stuff that happened, that has affected them deeply, and from which they moved forward with compassion for the other.
Watching them engage in the film and sensing their mutual adoration, I realized that in the end, it is that simple. It truly is all just stuff we do—no more, no less. And when we see our lives and relationships with neutrality, as Downy Jr. has come to do, there isn’t a density there—only love.
Feelings are still honored in the process, whether it’s anger, hurt, or remorse. But Downey Jr.’s expansive view doesn’t allow emotions to weigh heavy, victimize or demonize, or become carried over from generation to generation.
Stuff happens, we live through it, learn from it, and evolve.
It reminds me of the well-known poem, “The sun never says,” by the Sufi poet Hafiz:
“Even after all this time
The Sun never says to the earth
‘You owe me’
Look what happens with a love like that
It lights up the whole sky”
Downey Jr. continues, saying he loves his father for “what he did and what he didn’t do.” I have held his words close as I find peace with my own dad’s illness, a disease much like Parkinson’s, which took an enormous physical toll on Downey Sr.
In one of my last lucid conversations with my dad, I told him I wished we had lived together longer. My father moved out of my family home a few months shy of my 13th birthday. I’d always felt somewhat robbed of a father figure during my formative years.
Loving what my dad didn’t do means fully loving that he wasn’t there for me during a difficult time. It means moving through my feelings of abandonment and loving him because of all that transpired, not despite it.
By sharing the intimacy of his relationship with his father on screen, Downey Jr. spreads the message that our days need not be spent wishing our loved ones did things differently or feeling as if they hadn’t been whom we needed them to be.
He isn’t talking about letting go or getting over our trauma in this film; his message is more about including the hurtful and unsavory in our hearts, as well.
We see the younger Downey embracing the life his dad lived and celebrating the essence of Downey Sr., including the wildly imaginative storyteller and unique, creative genius, as well as his gravest flaws.
What Downey Jr. masterfully demonstrates is pure, unconditional love for his father. He loves him for his entirety.
Love without conditions is different from the acceptance or forgiveness we offer another. I imagine acceptance and forgiveness are the long paths we take toward achieving higher love for ourselves or another.
I learned from the two lines Downy Jr. spoke that non-conditional love eclipses acceptance and transcends our forgiveness.
His words have me aspiring to live lightheartedly and to love without compartments. They have me pondering how I will come to say goodbye to an aging, ailing parent and someone I love dearly.
What Downey Jr. and Downey Sr. are sharing with us may just be some stuff they did together, but even so, it’s remarkable, magical, and inspirational all the while.
And although I wish they had more time here together to do more extraordinary stuff, the Downey’s did stuff—and what a gift it was to watch.