I’m not entirely certain which was my first Robin Williams movie. Was it Hook? Or was it Dead Poets Society? I’m not sure, but I can tell you which one had the most profound affect on me.
For those of you who may not know, Dead Poets Society is the story of a group of boys at a Vermont prep school in 1959. The boys are all struggling with issues of identity versus what is expected of them. The new English teacher, played by Williams, challenges the boys to go against the status quo and establish their own identities. He tells them, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
I waited a while before writing this, hoping that some distance between myself and Williams’s death would make it easier. Perhaps I could put into words what this movie, and by extension Robin Williams, did for me. I don’t think a few days was enough distance. A few years wouldn’t be enough distance. But I will try anyway.
I grew up surrounded by drug addicts, alcoholics, and codependents. I went to school with kids who could barely read or think and I was ridiculed because I could. I went to church services and family reunions where I seemed to stand at a distance from everyone because I felt different in a way I could not begin to explain. And that difference haunted me because it demanded something more from me, but I did not know what that more could mean in a landscape marred by addictions and despair.
Then there came the words, “Carpe diem. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary.”
I’m not going to sit here and portray Robin Williams as a sort of personal savior and The Dead Poets Society as a Bible. However, it is an example of the great power of words. For many people, all it takes is an encouraging word to spur someone out of darkness. I think encouragement is vastly underrated in today’s society.
When I could have just given in, just sank into the darkness surrounding me and become another statistic, Robin Williams as John Keating said, “Seize the day. Make your life extraordinary. You don’t have to be like everyone else. Be your own person and be wonderful at it.”
Williams’s death was a deep shock. It never occurred to me that the man who spread laughter and encouragement like the sun spreads rays also battled his own inner demons. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Isn’t it always the ones who love the most, encourage the most, who are the ones who also suffer the most? He could reach out to people in their darkness because he contended with his own.
My first thought on hearing the news of his death was, “Maybe I could have helped him. Maybe all he needed was that one encouraging word, like I needed. Maybe if he just knew how much his existence meant to so many, maybe light would have broken through, and he wouldn’t have ended his own life.”
It really is true that we should be kind to everyone because everyone has a battle that no one knows anything about. And it really is true that encouragement at the right moment can make a difference between life and death. And it really is true that movies can leave a deep mark on the soul.
We’ll miss you deeply, Robin, O Captain, my Captain.