In the days following Robin Williams’ death by suicide, social media sites and news outlets were afire with quotes from the brilliant actor’s best-loved films. The scene that most affected his fans, at least as measured by Twitter mentions, seemed to be the carpe diem monologue from Dead Poets Society, which The Hollywood Reporter dubbed “perhaps the most iconic speech of [Williams’] career.” (See video clip below.)
In the scene, Mr. Keating (Williams), an English teacher at a prestigious prep school, shows his students a photo of a century-old graduating class and invites them to ponder their own mortality: “Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable?” Keating asks. “Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. … Carpe diem, seize the day, boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
As an unbelieving junior-high student, I, too, remember finding the mantra and the story arc of the students’ learning to live by it terribly wise. As an adult Christian, however, I see how much frustration and even despair can come from a worldview that focuses solely on seizing our present days.
It’s a wonderful thing to use one’s God-given talents to strive for excellence. That said, we are fundamentally flawed creatures, meaning even the most productive of us will waste more opportunities than we capitalize on and fail every day, to quote the film and Thoreau, “to suck all the marrow” from life. Claiming otherwise is vanity. Yet living what the world might call a merely ordinary life breeds no anxiety if you have an eternal perspective.
Contrary to Dead Poets’ message, this life is a dress rehearsal of sorts. You will sometimes flub the lines and miss your cues, and sometimes other performers will steal your show. But none of it should rob a redeemed person of joy because we understand that our earthly existence is but a breath compared to what’s before us. We don’t lose heart even over those days we neglected to seize because we know that they are light and momentary compared with eternity.
This is a truth that eluded Dead Poets Society and, seemingly, tragically, Robin Williams.