I first saw “Dead Poets Society” in my ninth grade English class. Really, it was the perfect time for a young kid, especially a young kid who one day wanted to be a writer, to see that film.
The film, of course, takes place at an elite northeastern prep school where Williams’ character, John Keating, teaches his students about poetry, about life and about what it means to be a man in the world.
At the time, I was a lot like the kids in the film. Grasping for meaning. Thirsty for knowledge. On the precipice of something great and terrifying.
And my English teacher was a lot like John Keating. Unconventional in his ways. Provoking the ire of the administration. Forcing me to see the world in a new light.
Suffice it to say, I had a deep emotional connection with the movie, specifically with the characters of Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) and John Keating.
The film itself is a masterful distillation of the wisdom all young men should carry with them, especially young men who have artistic ambitions.
It is replete with quotes from Keating about the beauty of life and the necessity of art. Here’s one of my favorite scenes that I still think about on a regular basis, that still gives me chills when I watch it:
This scene speaks to my being on such a fundamental level that I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget it. To me, this is what life is truly about. This is what being a man is truly about.
It’s about constantly striving to make art and love. It’s about allowing that pursuit run you ragged because there’s nothing else worth fighting for in this bankrupt world. Poetry and art cut through all the bullsh*t of life and hit you right in the gut.
To be a man is not to be macho and curse and drink and lift weights. To be a man is to allow beauty to overtake you. To be a man is to recognize this and to attempt to embody that love and that beauty every second of every day of your life.
Although Keating’s “Carpe Diem” may seem to be something of a cliché now, it still rings true. Seize the day! You only have one life to live. This is it. If I learned one thing from his performance and if I learn one thing from Williams’ life and untimely death, it’s that.
You don’t have any time to spare. So make the most of it. A man understands the fragility of life, but is not paralyzed by it. He accepts its brevity not as a tragic circumstance but as a call to battle, one that must be fought constantly.
Williams’ performance also taught me about finding my own voice and how not to be ashamed of it. Case in point:
This lesson is invaluable, especially to young men trying to carve out a place for themselves in the world.
When you’re growing up, you might think that your ideas are crazy or weird or out there. You might think that no one wants to hear them, that no one gives a damn. Often, that’s because no one has told you otherwise.
But this movie gave me permission to have those thoughts, to share them with the world. This movie taught me that the idea that no one else cares is utter nonsense. It’s just an excuse that will force you into a life of quiet desperation.
And even if you can’t find someone to listen to your thoughts or someone to read your work, they still have value and meaning because they came from you, because you’re the only one who could have produced them and because you took the time to do just that.
You create value and meaning in your own life. You set the parameters of your own happiness. Understanding this is essential to one’s manhood. That’s what John Keating taught me.
He also taught me humility. In a way, Keating’s advice failed Neil, the sensitive boy who ultimately kills himself. It, in no small part, led to his death. Sometimes the best advice can have dire consequences. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.
But there is also hope in Neil’s suicide. Of course, suicide is never the answer. As Williams said himself in his 2009 film “World’s Greatest Dad,” “Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems.”
But Neil’s suicide is an act of defiance. It’s a declaration that he’d rather not live than live in a world where he is unable to pursue his greatest passion, where he is unable to truly seize his day.
If you’re not living a life brimming with romance and overflowing with beauty, you’re not living life to its fullest potential. I know that it can be hard to surround yourself with these things. They’re not always easy to find on this dark rock.
But you must seek them out. You must work tirelessly to make them your bedfellows. Or, as Keating says, your hearts and souls may become casualties in the war of life.
One simple way to do this is to re-watch “Dead Poets Society” and really focus on the vibrancy of Williams’ performance. Bathe in the bracing sea of its wisdom. Hold tightly to its tenets. Extoll its virtues.
And, like real men, sound your barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world!
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