The news of Robin Williams’ death (and circumstances surrounding it) hit me hard. Oh, I’ve kept up with the passing of major and minor celebrities as well as most, but Williams’ passing was the first celebrity death that hit home for me. But it was the instinct to immediately watch Dead Poets Society that really ruined me.
In that film, Williams played John Keating, a new English instructor at a prestigious boarding school. When he meets with his first class, he invites them into the hallway to peruse the photos of former students and athletic teams. “You’ve walked by them many times, but I don’t think you’ve really looked at them.” By illustrating the transient nature of life by pointing out that every young man in those pictures was now dead, he then exhorted his class…Carpe Diem.
Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
After that scene, I buried my face in my hands, both from heartbreak as well as shame. I’d seen that film long ago and thought I had internalized its message. But somewhere along the line, I had forgotten to seize every day and had failed to appreciate that I too would someday be fertilizing daffodils. As I waded into the deep waters of adulthood, I’d failed to consider that the more yesterdays I accumulated, the sooner my inevitable end would arrive.
When we’re young, the world is ours for the taking. Our sails are taut with fire and energy. We are propelled by youthful enthusiasm and adolescent buoyancy. And we are poised to become something great…
…and then what we became may not have measured up to the inflated ideals of youth and may not have reached those distant ports. Perhaps we stopped…becoming.
But we as people are always becoming something. “Becoming what?” you may ask. Well, I have no idea. Start by asking yourself these 4 questions:
- Are your goals moving closer to being realized or are you moving away from them?
- Are you improving or regressing?
- Are you on an upward path or are you on a downward descent?
- Who or what is taking the lead in your life?
Because we have two choices: either we take the reins of our own life and act as self-directed agents or we give ourselves over to fate and circumstance and the horrible randomness of the universe.
Military families know all too well the crushing catastrophe of death. It’s always looming somewhere in our thoughts when our loved ones are deployed. And I certainly do not wish to be insensitive or callous when taking about death as a teacher rather than a tragedy. But I think the idea of death prompting us to seize the day and make every moment count is especially fitting military spouses.
Military spouses face their own kinds of deaths sometimes: the deaths of their enthusiasm and their unquenchable thirst for life, love and experience. I say this because I’ve lived it.
The few months during our first overseas tour were horrible for me. Now, any PCS will force a spouse to regroup, gain some traction, generate some inertia and integrate into their new communities. Yes, for the few months before moving, and a few months after arriving, you’re kind of in a holding pattern. Preparing for the move, moving, and then setting up shop in a new duty station pretty much puts your life on pause for 6 months or so.
But we had moved into our new townhouse, and had settled into a routine. Jobs overseas were nearly impossible to find unless you had a security clearance or very specific technical skills, so I cared for our 2 year old at home and drove our 5 year old to and from school. And after school the kids would typically insist on playing at the school playground. And so there I sat for hours, at the same playground as I had yesterday and would again tomorrow. Countless hours went by. Endless days went by. And I remember very clearly the moment I had something like an out-of-body experience: the moment when I felt that there was nothing about me that wasn’t atrophying.
The only thing that I was becoming was wilted.
I had forgotten the lessons of death. I had forgotten the finite nature of living. Because somewhere along the line, I’d resigned myself to some sort of PCS purgatory, where my kids would always be young, and I’d never, ever leave that damn playground. Ever. I had stalled out.
It is hard to get fired up about monotony. It drains your soul when your life becomes the script for Groundhog Day II: Parenthood. It is almost paralyzingly challenging to be forced to generate momentum in your life or career from a dead stop every 3 years. Every PCS forces us to hit the reset button on our lives, and after a few times, we may be tempted to ask, “Why bother?”
Why you should bother is that one day you will look back on your life and will have to tell yourself a story. One day you will be forced to give a full accounting of your life to yourself. What will your story be? One of resignation or one of triumph? A story of uplift or one of decay?
Death is the longest game. It is the most distant horizon. Robin Williams’ death was a tragedy to be sure. But it also instructed me to be vigilant in my desire to affirm my life and my place in the world, to mute those thoughts that tell me tales of woe and boredom, and to treat every day as if it were an unspeakably sublime gift…
…to live radiantly, “and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”