Carpe diem. Seize the day. It's the mantra in Dead Poets Society. Robin Williams, the incurably romantic teacher, leads his students out into the hallowed halls of the venerable prep school, where he instructs them to examine the photographs of past generations of students on display in the trophy cases. The young men in those photographs are bright, inquisitive, confident. And very dead. “Food for worms,” Williams tell them. The implication is clear: life is short, time is valuable, suck all the marrow out of life that you can. Seize the day.
I’m still waiting for the sequel, the one where those fresh-faced high school kids are now 50 years old, settled into their corporate careers. Surely not all of those kids lived extraordinary lives. Some of them must have settled down to life in cubicles, filling out expense reports in their rumpled suits and mustard-stained ties on the redeye flight back from the sales meeting. Welcome to the banal, the monotonous, the irrelevant, and the tawdry. Just what is it you’re going to seize now, boys?
It’s a question I wrestle with fairly routinely. My pastor Jeff talks all the time about the mundane, about what we do with the ordinary, routine moments of our lives, and about how those times define who we are. I believe it. But I also know that I haven’t been pleased with how I’ve been defined by those times of late. Look up “Andy Whitman” over the last few days and you’d find a definition something like this: “Restless, discontent, critical of others, self-absorbed. Also see: jerk, prick, ass.” I have been short-tempered. I have blamed others for things that were either no one’s fault, or my own fault. I have thrown a pity party for myself (no one else came, although they were invited). And I have whined. And it’s all because of the mundane. It’s all because of a succession of routine days in which absolutely nothing of consequence has happened. I’ve risen, gone to work, returned home, done some chores, avoided some chores, escaped my family through television and music and books, and have ticked a few more days off the calendar, moved a little closer to becoming food for worms. Morbid? Who, me? But Thoreau was right. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Some of them even do it while alternating between life inside a cubicle and behind a fertilizer spreader.
At lunchtime I walked in a metro park with my friend Mike, and asked him about it. “You’re stuck in a cubicle, too,” I said. “And you don’t even get vacation time. You just work fifty hours per week, and then you go home to the Honey Do list. How do you stay sane?”
“Well,” he said. “I look for the small pleasures. I may not get a vacation at the beach, but every night I make myself a snack of wheat crackers and extra sharp cheddar cheese, and sometimes the taste of that cheddar cheese just seems like the most delightful thing in the world.”
I looked at him, unsure that he was speaking English. “Excuse me if sound dubious,” I told him, “but you realize that you’ve just seriously compared cheddar cheese to a vacation at the beach.”
“I know,” he said. “Sometimes when I taste that cheese, I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
“I don’t understand you sometimes,” I replied. And I don’t. But I decided to give it the old post-college try.
A few hours later I went home, and the lawn beckoned. I decided to look for the small pleasures. Carpe Turfbuilder. Seize the fertilizer. Dump it in the spreader. Set the notch to 4.5 to ensure even spreading for the late spring application. Then go forth, you not-so-young-man, and find meaning and sustenance in the mundane. Brother Lawrence could worship God by washing the dishes. You can do it by fertilizing your lawn.
I’m not sure if I really talked myself into it. I did talk myself into apologizing to my wife and kids, which was something I needed to do. I asked God to forgive me for my ongoing jerkiness. But I find that I’ve been influenced by movies like Dead Poets Society more than I would like to admit. I operate subconsciously from some place of Romantic Entitlement. Life should be full of passion and excitement. It’s the kind of dissatisfaction that causes some men my age to buy the cherry red Porsche or abscond with the secretary. I’m not going to do those things. But I understand the cavernous hole that drives that kind of desperation. It is the mundane that defines us. And it is the mundane that is so crushingly, soul-numbingly dull. So far I haven’t been able to muster up the requisite excitement for cheddar cheese. I love my wife. I love my kids. I love my friends, and I recognize that I’ve been surrounded by rich, full, deep relationships. I would be crazy not to see these things. But the dissatisfaction remains. It is the God-shaped hole. And I wish God would fill it. Fertilizer and cheese, at least at this point, don't seem to be doing the trick.