Carpe Diem!

Carpe Diem!

From Chicken Soup for the Soul 20th Anniversary Edition

Carpe Diem!

Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?

~Frank Scully

One who stands as a shining example of courageous expression is John Keating, the transformative teacher portrayed by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. In this masterful motion picture, Keating takes a group of regimented, uptight and spiritually impotent students at a rigid boarding school and inspires them to make their lives extraordinary.

These young men, as Keating points out to them, have lost sight of their dreams and ambitions. They are automatically living out their parents’ programs and expectations for them. They plan to become doctors, lawyers and bankers because that is what their parents have told them they are going to do. But these dry fellows have given hardly any thought to what their hearts are calling them to express.

An early scene in the movie shows Mr. Keating taking the boys down to the school lobby where a trophy case displays photos of earlier graduating classes. “Look at these pictures, boys,” Keating tells the students. “The young men you behold had the same fire in their eyes that you do. They planned to take the world by storm and make something magnificent of their lives. That was 70 years ago. Now they are all pushing up daisies. How many of them really lived out their dreams? Did they do what they set out to accomplish?” Then Mr. Keating leans into the cluster of preppies and whispers audibly, “Carpe diem! Seize the day!”

At first the students do not know what to make of this strange teacher. But soon they ponder the importance of his words. They come to respect and revere Mr. Keating, who has given them a new vision — or returned them to their original ones.

All of us are walking around with some kind of birthday card we would like to give — some personal expression of joy, creativity or aliveness that we are hiding under our shirt.

One character in the movie, Knox Overstreet, has a terminal crush on a gorgeous girl. The only problem is that she is the girlfriend of a famous jock. Knox is infatuated with this lovely creature down to a cellular level but he lacks the confidence to approach her. Then he remembers Mr. Keating’s advice: Seize the day! Knox realizes he cannot just go on dreaming — if he wants her, he is going to have to do something about it. And so he does. Boldly and poetically he declares to her his most sensitive feelings. In the process he gets turned away by her, punched in the nose by her boyfriend and faces embarrassing setbacks. But Knox is unwilling to forsake his dream, so he pursues his heart’s desire. Ultimately she feels the genuineness of his caring and opens her heart to him. Although Knox is not especially good-looking or popular, the girl is won over by the power of his sincere intention. He has made his life extraordinary.

I had a chance to practice seizing the day myself. I developed a crush on a cute girl I met in a pet store. She was younger than I, she led a very different lifestyle and we did not have a great deal to talk about. But somehow none of this seemed to matter. I enjoyed being with her and I felt a sparkle in her presence. And it seemed to me she enjoyed my company as well.

When I learned her birthday was coming up, I decided to ask her out. On the threshold of calling her, I sat and looked at the phone for about half an hour. Then I dialed and hung up before it rang. I felt like a high school boy, bouncing between excited anticipation and fear of rejection. A voice kept telling me that she would not like me and that I had a lot of nerve asking her out. But I felt too enthusiastic about being with her to let those fears stop me. Finally I got up the nerve to ask her. She thanked me for asking and told me she already had plans.

I felt shot down. The same voice that told me not to call advised me to give up before I was further embarrassed. But I was intent on seeing what this attraction was about. There was more inside me that wanted to come to life. I had feelings for this woman, and I had to express them.

I went to the mall and got her a pretty birthday card on which I wrote a poetic note. I walked around the corner to the pet shop where I knew she was working. As I approached the door, that same disturbing voice cautioned me, “What if she doesn’t like you? What if she rejects you?” Feeling vulnerable, I stuffed the card under my shirt. I decided that if she showed me signs of affection, I would give it to her; if she was cool to me, I would leave the card hidden. This way I would not be at risk and would avoid rejection or embarrassment.

We talked for a while and I did not get any signs one way or the other from her. Feeling ill at ease, I began to make my exit.

As I approached the door, however, another voice spoke to me. It came in a whisper, not unlike that of Mr. Keating. It prompted me, “Remember Knox Overstreet. Carpe diem!” Here I was confronted with my aspiration to fully express my heart and my resistance to face the insecurity of emotional nakedness. How can I go around telling other people to live their vision, I asked myself, when I am not living my own? Besides, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Any woman would be delighted to receive a poetic birthday card. I decided to seize the day. As I made that choice I felt a surge of courage course through my veins. There was indeed power in intention.

I felt more satisfied and at peace with myself than I had in a long time... I needed to learn to open my heart and give love without requiring anything in return.

I took the card out from under my shirt, turned around, walked up to the counter and gave it to her. As I handed it to her I felt an incredible aliveness and excitement — plus fear. (Fritz Perls said that fear is “excitement without breath.”) But I did it.

And do you know what? She was not particularly impressed. She said “Thanks” and put the card aside without even opening it. My heart sank. I felt disappointed and rejected. Getting no response seemed even worse than a direct brush-off.

I offered a polite goodbye and walked out of the store. Then something amazing happened. I began to feel exhilarated. A huge rush of internal satisfaction welled up within me and surged through my whole being. I had expressed my heart and that felt fantastic! I had stretched beyond fear and gone out on the dance floor. Yes, I had been a little clumsy, but I did it. (Emmet Fox said, “Do it trembling if you must, but do it!”) I had put my heart on the line without demanding a guarantee of the results. I did not give in order to get something back. I opened my feelings to her without an attachment to a particular response.

The dynamics that are required to make any relationship work: Just keep putting your love out there.

My exhilaration deepened to a warm bliss. I felt more satisfied and at peace with myself than I had in a long time. I realized the purpose of the whole experience: I needed to learn to open my heart and give love without requiring anything in return. This experience was not about creating a relationship with this woman. It was about deepening my relationship with myself. And I did it. Mr. Keating would have been proud. But most of all, I was proud.

I have not seen the girl much since then, but that experience changed my life. Through that simple interaction I clearly saw the dynamics that are required to make any relationship and perhaps the whole world work: Just keep putting your love out there.

We believe that we are hurt when we don’t receive love. But that is not what hurts us. Our pain comes when we do not give love. We were born to love. You might say that we are divinely created love machines. We function most powerfully when we are giving love.

The world has led us to believe that our wellbeing is dependent on other people loving us. But this is the kind of upside-down thinking that has caused so many of our problems. The truth is that our wellbeing is dependent on our giving love. It is not about what comes back; it is about what goes out!

~Alan Cohen

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