Robin Williams once said, "Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always."
In January 2024, users on X shared a thought-provoking quote and attributed it to the late actor and stand-up comedian Robin Williams. The quote reads, "Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always."
"Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always." - Robin Williams.
— Quote of the Day (@quotepage) January 23, 2024
It's certainly possible that Williams would have wholeheartedly agreed with this sentiment. Before his suicide on Aug. 11, 2014, when he wasn't on the set to act in films and TV shows, he was living with his family as both a husband and a father, two roles in life that, like being a wife and mother, can teach a person valuable lessons.
However, unfortunate for any of Williams' fans, we were unable to uncover any evidence to document he ever said the exact words in the quote. In this story, we'll lay out how we came to this determination.
Unreliable Google Answers
First, we performed several Google searches. At the top of the search results, Google pointed users to an unhelpful source: a meme on Pinterest.
We don't recommend trusting Google's questions and answers that appear above search results. They often offer incorrect or irrelevant information.
We don't recommend placing blind trust in the questions and answers that appear above Google search results. Such answers can sometimes offer incorrect or irrelevant information that helps no one.
Next, we decided to check Twitter by using its nifty "advanced search" feature.
The Oldest Posts
In the X app, we opened the search function and tapped the icon that showed three dots to eventually select to perform an "advanced search." We chose to search for several of the words in the quote with Williams' name, then scrolled down to choose a range of dates that spanned from the social media site's founding in 2006 to the day after his death, Aug. 12, 2014. Then, we tapped to perform the search.
According to X, the earliest tweet to feature the quote next to Williams' name came hours after his death. To us, this meant that Williams likely never said the words in the quote.
These tweets were posted hours after Williams' death.
Some of these first several posts that are displayed in the screenshot above presented the quote as a statement related to Williams' death without directly attributing it to him as something he had said. It likely was these sorts of posts that eventually led to other users later claiming that he had, in fact, once uttered or wrote the quote himself.
So, if Williams didn't say these words, who did?
The sentiment expressed in the quote was one that likely had been expressed for many years in a variety of different words. It's the kind of belief that many people might agree with, as some of our social media commenters might point out when we repost this story on Facebook and X. However, we did find one fairly close match in an article about an American soldier who died on the battlefield. That story is next.
U.S. Army Spc. Douglas Jay Green
To continue our search, we turned our attention to newspapers.com, a website whose creators published on its "About" page to be "the largest online newspaper archive." The website's creators also noted its massive size. Its content library consists of "862 million+ pages of historical newspapers from 27,500+ newspapers from around the United States and beyond."
A search of the website's archive for the exact words "fighting a battle you know nothing about" produced 158 results. We also performed a search to include the word "that," as in, "fighting a battle that you know nothing about."
The oldest result that the website found for both searches was from the year before Williams' death.
On Jan. 26, 2013, author Tom Sileo wrote a story about Douglas Jay Green, a U.S. Army specialist who was killed on Aug. 28, 2011, while fighting in Afghanistan.
According to The Washington Post, whose reporting cited the Pentagon, Green was killed "when insurgents attacked his unit using a makeshift bomb and small-arms fire."
In Sileo's article, "The Other Fellow First," he wrote about a letter that Green had mailed to his family not long before his death:
The crushing loss of a fellow soldier, Spc. Brandon Mullins, 21, reinforced Doug's belief that his own death could soon be at hand. While [Spc. Green's mother, Suni Erlanger] said her son would have been allowed to stay behind from his final combat patrols, Doug went anyway.
Two weeks before his death, Doug mailed a heartfelt letter to his loved ones.
"If I could leave you with any words of wisdom it would be two things that I have always tried to live my life by," he wrote. "Make sure you always put yourself in the position of anyone you ever have contact with. You will never truly know a man or woman until you try to see things from their perspective.
"Secondly, never pass judgment or put anger on someone too quickly or harshly," Doug continued. "Because I guarantee you that person is fighting a battle that you know nothing about."
Sileo's entire story is available on tomsileo.com.
At first, we believed our search for the origins of the quote in question may have ended. Then, we remembered the old, reliable Google Books website, the search engine that can scan through text for what seems like every known piece of literature that exists in the world today.
Google Books Points to 2009
Our search of Google Books found one helpful result.
In 2009, author Darielys Tejera published the book, "Absolutely Nothing." It contained what might be the oldest written work with the exact words "fighting a battle you know nothing about."
The passage in Tejera's book makes mention of suicide, the same fate later suffered by Williams:
I was sitting here today, thinking. It is not like it is abnormal for me to do, but it is strange. It hit me that there are thousands of us out there who want to kill ourselves sometimes. There are people wanting to throw away their lives while at the same time others are struggling to keep theirs. Some of us beg to die, and some of us beg to live. Most are young, most die unnecessarily, and many are among the most imaginative and gifted that we, as a society, have. The truth of it all is that life really is a precious gift. It sure may seem as a long road, but truth is that this life is short, too short. Some years sure seem long, especially the high school years; but eventually, those years are gone. And when those tough years have passed, we start to wish that time could slow down, and d*mn do we miss them. Then reality strikes. Time to grow up and "it is the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance, the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance. It is the one who will not be taken who cannot seem to give and the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live." All I can say is, do not judge someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. Be nice to everyone you meet because they are fighting a battle you know nothing about, and that I can say from experience.
The ever-reliable Quote Investigator website published their findings about this quote after it was attributed by online postings to Plato. Their study found similarly-worded mentions of the same sentiment going all the way back to the late 19th century.
This fact check will be updated should we uncover any other data about the history of the quote.
Note: The quote about "the heart afraid of breaking" was attributed in Tejera's book to another work titled, "The Four Agreements," by author Don Miguel Ruiz in 1997. It originally came from "The Rose," a song written by Amanda McBroom that was later popularized by Bette Midler.
"Army Spc. Douglas J. Green." Military Times, https://thefallen.militarytimes.com/army-spc-douglas-j-green/6567958.
Borden, Jeremy. "Army Spec. Douglas J. Green Fondly Remembered as 'Old Soul.'" Washington Post, 14 Sept. 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/army-spec-douglas-j-green-fondly-remembered-as-old-soul/2011/09/14/gIQAMX23SK_story.html.
Sileo, Tom. "Service to Others Guided Soldier, His Mother Says." The Park City Daily News via Newspapers.Com, Sunday Reader, 27 Jan. 2013, pp. 1, 3, https://www.newspapers.com/image/663718642/.
---. "The Other Fellow First." TomSileo.Com, 26 Jan. 2013, https://www.tomsileo.com/2013/01/the-other-fellow-first.html.
Tejera, Darielys. Absolutely Nothing. Xlibris Corporation, 2009.
Feb. 5, 2024: This report was updated to add reporting from the Quote Investigator website.