“Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” This line comes from my all time favorite movie, “Dead Poets’ Society” where Robin Williams portrays an unconventional and passionate English teacher who is hired to teach a group of boys at a conservative, elite prep school. If you have not seen it-- I highly recommend that you put on your pajamas, make some popcorn, and sit back with no interruptions to watch this classic. Robin Williams’ character—Mr. Keating or “Captain” as the boys lovingly call him, resonates so much with me. He is passionate about poetry and literature; he wants his students to find their own voice and identity; he puts his heart and soul into not only his curriculum, but in the lives of his students. I have been reflecting on this movie lately in a somewhat melancholy manner because I remembered that this new school year would have been my 30th year of teaching if I had stayed in that profession. It was this month 16 years ago that I made the heart wrenching decision to retire from teaching. I had been teaching part time for three years since my son Noah was born, and when Micah came along, I weighed all my options and decided that it would be best for me and my family to do part time ministry and be a full time mom. This meant giving up the job that I had poured my life into for fourteen years. Some of my dearest lifelong friends I met while teaching and most of them are still impacting students to this day. Many of my fondest memories and much of my growth as an educator, mentor and counselor came from those years in the classroom. I am blessed to be in contact with many former students through Facebook and hearing about their families, careers, successes and struggles gives me a little taste of what their generation is going through. But the most precious gift from those years is that I have former students who have become not only friends, but family to me. I have had the absolute joy of staying in touch with many former students who later became my Young Life or youth group “kids” and who I have the honor of living life and community with every day. I am honored to be called Grandma, Lola or Auntie to their young kids. (Yes, that makes me really old). Even though I left teaching within the classroom setting, I had the opportunity to teach and impact teens through youth ministry for the next fifteen years. I have been able to work with teens and families and have a front row seat in watching lives transformed simply because mentors and leaders cared and listened. That is what the character Mr. Keating embodies—someone who truly cares and who wants kids to know that their lives matter.
I have been incredibly blessed to have spent the last 30 years doing work that gives me a sense of purpose. I truly feel that the work I have done and am doing is what God has called me to and gifted me for. When cancer came knocking on the door of my life and changed my world, my perspective, and my priorities, I took Mr. Keating’s words to seize the day and “suck the marrow out of the bone of life” to hypervigilant heights. I didn’t know how long I had left to live and I vowed to be passionate and purposeful about every little thing. The result was that I had magical highs, difficult lows (during treatment) and frustration with the mundane, necessary aspects of life. But as I settle into this new season of life, I am ever more aware that the ordinary IS life. It is how we approach the ordinary that makes our lives extraordinary. I certainly wish that every single thing I did had purpose, meaning, or impact, but most of life is made up of simple, necessary tasks. Last week I had two doctor appointments, an appointment to service my car, work meetings, groceries to buy, meals to cook, a kid to take to lacrosse practices and the gym, laundry to fold, floors to sweep, counters to wipe, insurance calls to make, bills to pay. Most of my friends are juggling work and multiple kids’ schedules and committees and commitments and many of us are feeling like we are barely surviving, only to drop into bed (and in my case NOT sleep well), only to start it all over the next day. Many people I know do not have the luxury of a job they love and some friends of mine are doing all of this as a single parent. When we are caught up in the mundane and necessary tasks of life, it is easy to feel that all is pointless. But it certainly is NOT.
Mr. Keating did not say, “Make your lives extraordinary boys”….and then give them a full list of what extraordinary looks like in the world’s standards—it was up to each of them to take their God given gifts and use them to live the best life they could and not squander it. He wanted them to find their own identity and their own purpose. When we compare ourselves to what others are “doing” and “becoming” (and I am guilty of this quite often), we lose the gift we have been given—that we are, by nature of simply being created by God, capable of being the best ME we can be. Too often I will beat myself up if I simply ran errands all day and didn’t have a meaningful lunch meeting or didn’t get a big project completed. I get focused on DOING and think that means success. But I am settling into the fact that life is a series of ordinary moments and that is OKAY. When I get those “seize the day” opportunities or those “suck the marrow” moments, it makes them even more precious and extraordinary.
As I think back on those days of teaching and all the memories and joys they brought, they were mostly filled with ordinary days and ordinary moments. I think back to Dead Poets’ Society when Mr. Keating quotes from his favorite poet Walt Whitman and ends with this: “You are here. Life exists. The powerful play goes on and you will contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
Life exists. You are here. The necessary and the mundane are part of that existence. But we get to decide what we want to contribute. Most of us won’t be famous for our contributions, and that doesn’t matter. Does our contribution--our verse-- make an impact on those who are important in our lives? No amount of fame or fortune will make our lives extraordinary. Until we find peace in our OWN verse and contribution, we will always be seeking and searching. We will always feel aimless, worthless and purposeless. God gave you THIS life. He said, “You exist; you are here.” And he gave you a verse to contribute. Own it. Live it. And then your ordinary life will be extraordinary.
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