Dead Poets Society: 25 Years Later

22 Dec

** Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen this movie, major plot lines are discussed below.

In 1989, I saw Dead Poets Society in the theater with a good friend from college. It was the first movie I’d ever seen in the theater which so moved me that I could not speak for minutes after the movie concluded. The movie spoke to so many realities in my life at that time. The phrase carpe diem resonated with me as a young man on the cusp of all life had to offer. “Seize the day, make something extraordinary of you lives.” The character of Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) inspired me with his creative teaching style and his focused efforts to get his students to think and to open themselves up to new possibilities. The interaction of the boys with each other opened up to me the possibilities of true community and friendship. The character of Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) particularly affected me. I saw so much of myself in him. Fearful, shy, lacking confidence. I identified with his character completely.  The triumphant moment when he stands on his desk in allegiance to Mr. Keating is still one of my favorite movie moments. Mr. Keating brings Todd out of his shell over the course of the movie and in the end Todd stands up in courage to defend Keating. Todd, who had been the very definition of a follower, becomes a leader. But the most emotional part of the movie for me 25 years ago was the story of Neil (Robert Sean Leonard). The son of a domineering father who insisted he become a doctor, Neil’s imagination was captured by Keating and he followed the mantra of carpe diem, convincing his friends to re-form the Dead Poets’ Society, a secret club founded by Keating many years earlier. In addition, Neil finds his passion: acting. He gets cast in the lead role of a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Knowing his father would disapprove and prohibit his participation in the play, Neil hides his performance from his father. The father finds out and, though seeing Neil’s dynamic performance and the crowd’s enthusiastic applause, the father chastises Neil and decides to pull him out of school at Welton and put him into military school. Neil reaches his breaking point and late that night goes into his father’s office and kills himself. His father and mother discover his body. Keating is made the scapegoat through his influence on the boys and this ultimately sets the stage for Keating’s dismissal and the movie’s final scene.

Last night, for the first time in 25 years, I watched Dead Poets Society again. I was still moved, though nowhere near the way I was moved the first time I saw the movie. I know part of the reason is that this was a second viewing but I also believe that Dead Poets Society was a movie made explicitly to appeal to the young. I am no longer young. The teaching of Keating still inspires me, though I am not given so much to ripping out the introduction of a textbook when I don’t agree with it. I am not eager to offhandedly dismiss those with whom I disagree but would rather interact and understand different viewpoints. I also found that the phrase carpe diem holds very little charm to me anymore, especially when coupled with the phrase, “make something extraordinary of your lives.” I love the idea of having passion for life and particular passions we pursue. This is much of what makes life a joy. Yet the idea of following your passion as your life’s goal, when said passion is a career or a hobby or an expression of one’s talent, has largely lost all charm to me. I have come to see that most of what is thought to be extraordinary in our culture is largely empty, while the things thought ordinary are most profound. A long pattern of faithfulness to God, to one’s spouse, to children, to integrity and hard work is much more valuable to me than the ability to act or sing or create. When we think of extraordinary, we think of someone who creates an app that entertains millions, but we should think instead of the middle-aged woman who cares lovingly for aging parents. Doing something extraordinary with your life may mean changing diapers for several years without resentment. It may mean working a job you don’t love so you can provide for those you do love. One of the most twisted parts of my early Christian life was the issue of “doing something great for God.” Many young men and women are filled with delusions of grandeur by well-meaning adults and put on a track where onward and upward is the only way to go. So they go off to the mission field hailed as heroes or pastor a church or lead in some other ministry. Most do not set the world on fire. When the inevitable bumps in the road come, when inward expectations are not met, disappointment and even depression follow. I have been learning over these last twenty five years that simple, daily faithfulness is the real way to seize the day and that pain and suffering and hardship and waiting are essential tools in the hand of God for shaping our souls in a good way.

But most of all in regards to the movie, I now look at Neil so much differently. When I first saw the movie, I thought his suicide almost heroic. He was not willing to compromise his ideals, even if it meant death. In the end, Neil was unyielding. Since he couldn’t live the life he wanted to live, he wouldn’t live at all. But now, twenty five years later, I see Neil’s suicide, while an effective (some would say manipulative) plot device, as ultimately and only a great tragedy in the story. Looking into the faces of my four children makes me realize that Neil ultimately threw away so much. He missed out on so much of the joy of life because of the one thing he thought he couldn’t live without. He was ruled by his passion for acting and need to be free from his father’s domination. He lacked the ability to see into the future, much as I did when I first saw the movie. He lacked the ability to see that over the course of time, new vistas open to us, we are never really confined to one and only one destiny. The one constant in life, apart from God, is change. Neil could have pursued his interests and had a great measure of independence had he only waited. Of course, this would have taken away from the dramatic impact of the movie. Nevertheless, Neil’s life is not a good template for us to follow. Patience over impulsiveness, passion tempered with wisdom, this is a better way. Throwing one’s life away in suicide seems to me never a good option.

Twenty five years have made a difference. Maybe I’ve just become a “get off my lawn” old man, I don’t know. What I do see is how much one’s views can change over time and how maybe we ought to cut younger people some slack when their attitudes are strident or their passions seem misplaced. And at the same time we give them grace, though, maybe we should also lovingly share with them things we have come to recognize through life experience. The last twenty five years have allowed me, like Keating’s students, to stand on the desk and see from a different perspective. Maybe I’ll watch this movie again in 2039 if I’m still around. That would be an interesting blog article, if blogs still exist (the way things change, probably not).

One Response to “Dead Poets Society: 25 Years Later”

  1. creatorworship December 22, 2014 at 6:00 pm #

    This blog entry gives me more insight into who you were and who you have become than many other conversations I have had with you. I can most relate to your comment about “make something extraordinary of your lives”. I don’t think that it is so much whether we should not aspire to this ideal but as you have said how and for who’s glory we should aspire. The movie is appealing because is has so much truth about the learning process, the deadness of “the old guard” procedure, and how creativity inspires and deepens thought processes. But the “dirty little lie” (huge, ubiquitous lie really) in this movie is humanism, captain of your own ship and what not. Even when we reject all that God has to offer we are not nor can we be free from the constraints of His goodness or wrath. By laying down our way and taking up His we may seize the day by the power His Spirit gives through His Son to His glory. I want to seize that day!

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