Swimming Against the Tide


"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?" — John Keating, "Dead Poets Society"

"Dead Poets Society" is a fascinating film. This is a film set in the 1950s at a conservative, private, preparatory school in Vermont. The institution is very buttoned-down, exclusive and renowned for the education and opportunities it provides for its students. Among a group of senior boys that the film follows are Neil (Robert Sean Leonard), an overachiever with an over-bearing father, and his roommate Todd (Ethan Hawke), a quiet thinker who is trapped in the shadow of the siblings that preceded him at the school. Both boys have stores of hidden talent, but both are held back in different ways from pursuing their desired path. For Todd, the impediment is his self-doubt. For Neil, the impediment is the will of his father.

A new English teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams), adds a new dimension to the school and the lives of his students. He challenges conventional thinking by challenging his students to think for themselves and forge their own path. More than anything, he encourages his students to start living their lives. His first speech emphasizes this as he uses the phrase “Carpe Diem,” seize the day, as a rallying cry for how he intends to teach and how he hopes to see his students approach life.

Predictably, his approach inspires students and stirs negative emotions in the school administrators and parents. Keating continues to push his students to excel, which leads to a series of events that change everyone’s lives.

Mr. Keating begins his class and his school year with the students encouraging them to seize the day. He tells them to not fear, to not wait, to not worry, but to go out and snatch life. What do you think of that advice?

Well, Carpe Diem is not a new phrase. The origination of the phrase actually comes from a Latin poem by Horace. The full phrase, translated in English, is actually “Seize the Day, putting as little trust as possible in the future.” The emphasis being that you need to seize upon what you have in mind at the moment and not just wait and rely on plans for the future, which is uncertain.

Keating doesn’t stop with encouraging his students to seize the day. He also talks to them about why they need to do that, and how they need to approach life. He encourages his students to buck the system, think for themselves, and blaze their own path.

This puts him in conflict with his school — The Welton Academy — and many of the parents of his students. The culture of the school and the families of the students is more revered, prizing a conservative approach to life and going with the established norms. That's not what Keating is preaching.

"Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation." Don't be resigned to that. Break out," Keating says. He encourages them to buck the system.

Last week we talked about worldview, and what goes into Worldview. Six lenses are experience, education, place, Spiritual convictions (and relationships), family, and culture. It's that last lens that most applies to the discussion of the worldview in this movie.

The question is how does this outlook and approach relate to our Christian walk? There is a lot of pressure to conform and, conversely, a lot of pressure on those who don’t conform to step back into line. I love the example he used, just picking three kids at random and asking them to walk. Almost instinctively, they started marching in step with one another. No one wants to stick out or dare to be different.

This film isn’t the first to suggest there is a benefit to stepping off the uniform path. I love the line by the poet Robert Frost, “I saw two roads in the forest and I took the one that was less traveled.”

This obviously isn’t a Christian film, per se, but I think there are themes in here that are worth considering, especially this idea of conforming. There is a lot of pressure in our culture to conform, but at Christians we are called to be different.

Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” 

It’s an interesting verse to consider, too, as we focus this year as a church on Living God’s Purpose. To me, the lessons Keating gave his students empowered them to express themselves and to not be afraid of going a different way. And there is a power and freedom when we passionately live and defend our faith.

Clearly, though, Keating’s philosophy was at odds with the culture of his school, and the culture that most of his students came from. That created some ripples and waves for him and his students.

I appreciate the ideas in this movie and the way Keating tries to inspire his students to dare to think for themselves and figure the world out for themselves. But I think there is one other takeaway for me from this film. Keating says, "There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for."

This movie has preached some strong ideas about breaking free, not conforming, and thinking for ourselves. Those are all good points, but sometimes even when we are on that path, we need to remember to have patience. Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, “The better part of valour is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life.” The point being that we need to exercise sound judgment and patience and not take unnecessary risks. Sometimes patience is required.

For those of you that have seen this movie, things do not end happily for all the students or for Keating. Some, lacking patience, forge ahead on a reckless path. Others, unable to endure the hardships that always accompany those that follow the road less traveled, engage in self-destructive behavior. Keating loses his job and some of his students lose their future. But there is still hope in the end because some of them, it seems, have the strength to weather the trials presented and to hold on to that which is precious that they have gained. 

It’s not always easy when we step off the path and follow our hearts. I think we see that from Keating and the students as well.

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