“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” This is a line from Walt Whitman’s poem Oh Me! Oh Life! quoted by Mr. Keating, a character played by Robin Williams in what is one of my favorite movies. It is a powerful poem. It is a powerful movie. I think the poem itself exposes why I like the Dead Poets Society to begin with. It’s the struggle. The movie reveals a struggle with which I identify. I suspect we all do. William’s character struggles with an old system that he believes desperately needs reform. Within that system, young men at the all-boys prep school tussle with life in general, work to find their own way and struggle against the same system as Mr. Keating finding themselves thrust into it without choice. One of the students doesn’t survive it. Neither does Mr. Keating’s job. The movie captures Whitman’s foundational question well, “What good amid these, Oh me, Oh life?”
I’ve often wondered why I like this movie because it actually ends somewhat unresolved. But I think it’s because I identify with the struggle, the wrestling against brokenness and broken systems. I also watch the movie with a hope at which the movie never really arrives. The culmination of the story is when the young men who were touched by Keating’s life pledge defiant allegiance to him by standing on their desks proclaiming, “Oh Captain, My Captain!” Although I can identify in some ways both with Mr. Keating and students at that moment, what resonates more is the conclusion of Whitman’s poem, “That you are here—that life exists and identity…” Whitman points to more, to existence, to purpose, which leads to his conclusion of life as a powerful play and the opportunity to contribute. In the plot, this was Keating’s hope for his students, that they would find purpose. The fear? That they would be crushed under the weight of the struggle and miss the opportunity.
I think Keating’s point, and ultimately Whitman’s, is amidst the struggle there’s hope to make a difference—to contribute a verse. For me, the thought of contributing a verse is moving, exciting, stirring, and compelling. I even secretly and internally ask myself sometimes, can I make a difference? Can I contribute a verse? The questions arise all the more during seasons of struggle.
Here’s the truth:
It’s not the absence of struggle that allows an opportunity to contribute a verse, it’s actually the presence of it.
I wasn’t around in the 19th century when Walt Whitman penned his famous poem, so I have no idea what his thoughts are behind it. But I know how it speaks to me both in the struggle and the hope. It propels my mind to some promises given for this life. Here are two:
1. This life comes complete with tribulation (struggle)—John 16:33.
There is struggle in life and, at times, this struggle will feel unfair and unjust. But there is no reason for fatalism like Whitman’s question, “What good amid these, O me, O life?” Don’t give up because tribulation isn’t the only promise in this life.
2. There is always an opportunity to make a difference.
How? By learning to live out the supreme ethic of love. (Matthew 22:37-39). If you feel that your current struggles have you sidelined, just begin to make a difference in simple ways right where you are. How?
- Smile at someone—you might make their day.
- Be kind to someone—you never know how much of an encouragement you can be to a waitress, or waiter, or barista, or cashier, or coworker just by being kind in our world that is gripped with consumerism and self-centeredness.
- Serve someone—whether it’s putting away your neighbor’s trashcan, serving at your local soup kitchen, visiting someone in the hospital, whatever it is, just serve someone.
- Give an unexpected gift.
- Ask someone how they’re doing…and mean it.
- In short, find a way to love your neighbor. By the way, it doesn’t cost money to make a difference!
If you feel lost in the struggle of life, if you find yourself sidelined by circumstances beyond your control, start, or restart right where you are because Walt Whitman was right:
“The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”