The Greatest Teacher of Them All
“While we talk, envious time will have fled: pluck the day, trusting as little as possible to the future.” — Horace, Odes 1:11 (23 BC)
As I approach the home stretch of another lap around the sun, I find myself once again facing
my own mortality. Maybe it’s the ever-growing list of aches and ailments, or possibly the grey hairs sprouting from my jawline (or the ones that have ceased sprouting from my scalp). Whatever it is,
I’m feeling more mindful of my physical age, and subsequently, my time remaining above soil.
Forty five years — that’s how long I have left. I know this because a fortune teller told me so while
I sat on the white sands of southern Thailand, many full moon parties ago. For the meagre sum
of 20 Baht (just under $1), this prophetical man studied the palm of my right hand and informed
me of my fate… I was to live to the age of 86. That’s not bad, I thought?
But he didn’t stop there. No, he went on to tell me I was going to father three children. Yikes. Not
really what I wanted to hear as a 22-year-old man, in a foreign land, still trying to balance the ledger on the previous night’s bender. It’s not that I was ever opposed to the notion of kids. It’s just, at that time, my mind was well entrenched in the pop-culture philosophy of “carpe diem — seize the day”.
And kids? Well, they didn’t seem to fit within that narrative. Children were the harbingers of domesticity — all joy and no fun. And I was too selfish, too irresponsible, too impulsive, too…
you name it. I couldn’t take care of three kids. I could barely take care of myself. Mercifully my
new friend did not stipulate an arrival date, so there was still time to change my outlook from
up-to-no-good to fatherhood.
Thinking back, this whole ideology of seizing the day started back in my high school daze. It was during one of John Keating’s English classes. Mr Keating was legendary. He’d conduct his lessons
in the hallway or out on the sports field. He’d tear lifeless pages from dreary text books and stand defiantly on desktops. I can still hear him whispering in our ears: “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
Okay so Mr. Keating isn’t real, he’s a fictitious character in the film Dead Poet’s Society. But he’s
the teacher I wished I had. And when I watched him deliver those impassioned words (inspired by
the Roman lyric poet Horace) to the young men at Welton Academy, I felt empowered — just like
so many others. That’s why every two-bit marketing company co-opted his ‘live for the moment’ philosophy in an attempt to encourage us into mindless consumption.
Though it needn’t have been that way, had the rendering of Horace’s poem been less um, questionable. It’s said a more accurate translation of ‘carpe diem’ would be ‘pluck the day’
— the metaphor being a horticultural one. Like Robert Herrick’s updated version, “Gather ye
rose-buds while ye may,” far gentler in nature. But I guess the true translation lacked the militaristic might that capitalist culture calls for… Think ugly phrases like: “capture the market” and “killing it”.
But gentle is where I’m at these days. I’m no longer exonerating my inconsiderate behaviour as
being in the spirit of carpe diem. No, I’m embracing the overarching theme of Dead Poet’s Society and contemplating life from a different perspective — fatherhood (you were partially right,
Mr fortune teller man).
Just the other day my little boy made the North Island equivalent of a snow angel in the dry grass clippings atop Mount Drury. He’s really helping me lean into this softer, more grounded approach
to living in the now — while I’m fortunate enough to do so.
DEAD POET’S SOCIETY (1989)
Director: Peter Weir
Starring: Robin Williams
First published in issue 34 (June/July 2021) of Our Place magazine.