Robin Williams as the unorthodox professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society.
In this role, Williams disregards the conformist culture of the elite Welton Academy. In one of the most notable scenes from the movie, he urges his students to Seize the Day – Carpe Diem! Indeed, if you were to associate popular phrases with a specific movie, this would be one of the most memorable pairings.
Keating (Williams) reminds the students that their time on this earth is precious, short, and unpredictable. Williams delivers this message with gusto and his words drip with passion as he implores the students to take advantage of their here and now. Make a difference in the world…Value the time. Or, as my youngest daughter told me when she was just eight years old, “Waste your time wisely!” I couldn’t have said it better.
Later in the movie, Williams, with the class huddled closely quotes Walt Whitman’s poem “O Me! O Life!” For those who haven’t read the poem or would like a reminder, Here it is:
Oh Me! Oh Life! By Walt Whitman
Oh me! Oh life! …of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
What is Whitman saying? In a sense he’s re-asking the age-old question, “to be or not to be?” He’s identifying that life is embedded with ups and downs. The downs can get tiring and depressing. It can shake our faith in ourselves and in humanity. Walt Whitman’s own life was a prime example of this. In this poem he eludes to the populace who betray our hopes and expectations. He considers himself no better than the other fools surrounding him. He describes striving for things that may not be worth the pursuit and the toil and struggle at times simply to survive. He refers to the “empty” and apparently “useless” years which may be wasted without purpose or obvious meaning – and feels as if he were also an integral cog in this wheel. Thus, bringing us to the ultimate question: what is the meaning and purpose of all of these struggles? Why put up with these disappointments and down-turns? Is there a deeper meaning? O Me!
Fortunately, Whitman also provides us with his rather simple answer which Keating recreated into a life changing moment. Whitman’s answer:
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Whitman is letting us know that the fact that life exists, should provide enough drive for us to find purpose to also exist. Most importantly, he reminds us that it is in this life – “this powerful play”, that we each have a pivotal role. We may contribute a verse! This defines who we are and what we are about. It is our personal mission statement.
Robin Williams, like Walt Whitman, contributed several important verses. Every one of us has the potential to do the same. Whether your life is judged by others to be one of great success or miserable failure you have not only the ability but the responsibility to contribute a verse.
While it may seem like your verse may get lost in this “mortal coil”. This should not give you pause…we are listening. You have a voice and you have a choice.
Tonight, while you’re sitting around the dinner table with your family or friends, ask them, “What will your verse be?” What kind of legacy would you want to leave?
Thank you, Robin Williams.