“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
This quote is from an early scene in the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society. I first saw this film when I was in college and loved it. At the time I thought my future involved a PhD in rhetoric, a small liberal arts classroom and a lifetime of teaching, so Robin Williams’ character was more than just momentarily inspiring.
Last night, happily ensconced in our flat with the chatter from the Sherlock Holmes pub providing the perfect city din below, I watched it again, and it was just as captivating.
More than 20 years have passed since I first saw the movie, and although it is exactly the same, I am not. Those intervening years have altered my perspective in much the same way as climbing up on their desks’ critically and forever altered those school boys’ point of view. Once you climb up, there’s simply no going back.
What struck me in this viewing was the sympathy I had for Neil’s father, the antagonist in the film, pitch-perfectly played by Kurtwood Smith. When I first saw the film so many years ago, I read him quite flatly as the villainous, domineering parent who refused to nurture even the slightest hint of passion in his son.
But now I am a parent.
Every day I think about the future my children will have, and even if I try not to, there’s always Facebook and the Mommy Wars to remind me that other parents are making wildly different choices — in school choice, in extracurricular activities, in priorities — that throw shade on my own.
Neil’s father was doing the best he could. He loved his son, and he envisioned his son’s future unfolding in a particular, certain way — ripe with meaningful achievement, financial security, social acceptance.
The fatal flaw in Mr. Perry, of course, is not what he wishes for his son; it is that he lacks all self-awareness. Having (conveniently) fixated on Neil, he excuses himself from doing the hard work of understanding where he ends and his son begins, where his own fears and lusts, forged in the crucible of “real” life, threaten to overwhelm the adolescent hopes and dreams of his child. Controlled by dark, unexamined emotions, Mr. Perry will not — indeed cannot — let Neil make his own choices; the consequences are perceived as life-threatening. Mr. Perry’s self-ignorance is so oppressive it robs Neil of his future, backing him into a corner from which he will not escape.
I empathize with Mr. Perry now in a way I didn’t before. But I don’t want to be like him. I want to parent my daughters the way my mom and dad parented me.
They gave me my life and let me live it, let me choose it, knowing fully well the risk they were taking. They flooded my world with all sorts of ideas, even ones they disagreed with, to teach me ideas matter and to train me to be unafraid in a world much larger than my own. Our home was flush with literature, poetry and all sorts of music. And we dreamed. Big dreams, together dreams.
Even still I made naive choices in my adolescence that would impact me for decades to come, choices that would eventually break my heart and my spirit too, almost to the point of no return.
But they didn’t just let me choose my life and then stand at a distance and watch it unfold. They walked every step of the way with me and still do. They accompany me on my journey even when they disagree with the road I choose. And they pray a lot, entrusting me — oh what faith! — to the God who promises to make all things brand new.
As I lay awake in the dark hours of the morning, thinking about Mr. Perry and his spirited, doomed son, thinking about my parents and the scars they carry, my daughters and the wounds that surely wait for them, I come back to the same thing John Keating did, but with a God-shaped twist:
Carpe diem, my sweet little girls, as you daily place all your faith, all your hope, all your love in I AM. Live life large and unafraid, for there is no road you can take that will not lead you further up and further in, no suffering He will not redeem, no locust that can forever steal the years. Find the voice God gave you and write the poem of your life for His great Kingdom play. Here: take my hand, hold it when you wish and let go when you must. I promise you will never walk alone.