Like millions of others, I was stunned to learn of the tragic death of Robin Williams, who took his own life after a long and unsuccessful struggle with depression. My own children grew up watching and rejoicing in Robin’s many movies, such as “Good Morning, Viet Nam”, “Good Will Hunting”, and “Mrs. Doubtfire”. I will not attempt here to list his many professional accomplishments. That lengthy and happy task I leave to others better equipped than I, though I will suggest that we will not soon his like again. Here I would like to focus on the legacy he has left us.
That legacy may be summed up in two words: carpe diem, seize the day. In a now particularly bittersweet scene from his film “Dead Poets Society”, Williams plays Mr. Keating, an English teacher at a prestigious boys’ prep school. He wants the boys to be inspired by poetry, to think for themselves, to avoid the snares of rigid formalism which pressed upon them all around. On the first day of classes, he troops his boys from his classroom into the school’s main hall. He has them read the poetic lines, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may; Old Time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles today, Tomorrow will be dying.” The Latin for this sentiment, he tells them, is carpe diem, seize the day. Why? “Because we are food for worms, lads,” he tells them. “Because believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room will one day stop breathing, turn cold, and die.” He then bids them look closely at the display cases containing old photos of students from years long past, and to hear what these now long-dead students are whispering to them. “Carpe—carpe—carpe diem! Seize the days, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
The same message sounded from another of Robin’s films, “Hook”. Here he plays Peter Banning, a father of two young children who has forgotten that he is also Peter Pan. It is a tale of redemption, since Peter Banning has abandoned his inner child and become a driven executive whose obsession with work is costing him the love of his wife and his two young children. His sojourn in Neverland becomes a journey of salvation, as he rediscovers his true self and saves his children from Captain Hook. The final scene is now also poignantly bittersweet: it shows the reborn Peter Banning standing at an open window, surrounded by his loving family. An aged Wendy murmurs ruefully, “So your adventures are over.” “Oh no,” he replies. “To live—to live would be an awfully big adventure.” The movie ends with his childhood friend Tootles, having been sprinkled with fairy dust, flying with joy into the sky. And Tootles’ words as he flew through the open window? “Seize the day!”
This counsel not only comes to us through the joyful art of Robin Williams. It also comes through the exhortations of the Gospel. “Behold,” says St. Paul, “now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). We must seize the day, and use each one of its hours to glorify the Lord and walk in His will. We believers shouldn’t need Mr. Keating to remind us that one day we will turn cold and die and stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ. We who are called to be saints do not need to belong to the Dead Poet Society to learn that we should use the time given us by God to make our lives extraordinary. And we who follow the Lord to the cross and beyond surely don’t need Peter Pan to teach us that life is an awfully big adventure. The Church never ceases to remind us of these truths and to impress them upon our hearts.
But not everyone enjoys the advantage of listening to the Gospel call to become extraordinary. Some may never enter the doors of the Church to hear its summons to the adventure that is Christian discipleship. But they might sit in a movie theatre or before a television screen and watch the art of Robin Williams. They might be moved to seize the day and reach out to try to become something more than mere masses of dying mediocrity. It might just be the first step to making their lives extraordinary, and maybe even the first steps back to our extraordinary Lord.
One final thing: as we remember with gratitude the art of Robin Williams, let us spare a moment to remember his soul also. It seems that at the end, he was not able to take his own advice, and to continue the awfully big adventure. All the more reason to commend him to God, the lover of mankind. O Captain, my Captain, divine Judge of the souls of all men, have mercy upon him, and upon us all.