This piece is part of a collection of works I self-published in a short book. You can download the collection here.
I’ve seen two movies—Dead Poets Society and Lincoln—over the course of the last month that have prompted a very serious question to surface in my heart.
I’ve seen Dead Poets Society a number of times, but I always find myself swelling with emotion every time I watch it. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you find it and take an evening to watch it with a friend.
In one particular scene, Robin Williams’ character (Mr. Keating) takes his class of prep school teenage boys into a room filled with pictures of the school’s alumni.
Mr. Keating begins to tell the boys something I’ll never forget…
“Believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die. Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You’ve walked past them many times. I don’t think you’ve really looked at them. They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. Do you hear it? Carpe… Carpe… Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
And if that movie wasn’t inspiring enough, I saw Lincoln just a week or two later.
I would venture to say Lincoln is my favorite movie of all time.
Every time Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln character opened his mouth to speak, I found my heart swelling up with something. Admiration? Maybe. Love? Perhaps. Respect? Undoubtedly.
But I think it’s something far more meaningful— a distinctly human desire to make my life count. To matter. To leave a permanent imprint on the soul of human existence.
Both times that I’ve seen Lincoln I found myself unable to sleep the night after watching it. The poignant words of Lincoln’s history-making monologues always find a way of reintroducing themselves to my soul hours, even days after first hearing them.
One particular scene completely overwhelmed me both times I saw this film. (Don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler.)
Lincoln is preparing to leave the White House just a day after passing the historic 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. His African-American right-hand offers him gloves, and Lincoln takes them reluctantly, only to place them right back down on the side table as soon as he presumes his right-hand is no longer watching him. This quirky example of Lincoln’s stubbornness resurfaces several times throughout the film.
The right-hand calls to Lincoln as he’s leaving the room that he’ll be late to the theatre if he doesn’t hurry up. The audience knows what is inevitably about to happen next. My eyes (and the eyes of so many more in theaters across America) start to water.
Lincoln walks out of the room and begins the long walk down the White House corridor toward the front door.
And then…the audience sees the African-American right-hand watching Lincoln take his long strides down the hall. The image of Lincoln wearing his iconic top hat while he walks to the carriage that is waiting to take him to the theatre where a man will take his life is one I’ll never forget. Lincoln of course, has no idea his right-hand is still watching him.
And the camera captures a certain look in the African-American right-hand’s eyes, a look that will be very difficult for me to put into words.
The eyes of the right-hand scream with admiration—a rare kind of deep, soul-capturing, whole-being admiration. They gleam with a level of respect that very few men ever garner from another human being (let alone millions) over the course of their short times on earth.
In the eyes of that one African-American man, I can see into the souls of millions more who were freed from the bondage of slavery. And in those eyes, it’s almost as if I can hear the voices of untold millions say in one fantastic voice…
That moment in the film has been seared somewhere deep within my soul. I’ll never forget it.
And inevitably, my heart fills with wonder. What if Lincoln hadn’t given his life to abolishing slavery? What if he had chosen the easier path over the one everyone told him would be (and inevitably was) the source of his demise?
What if Lincoln hadn’t cared so deeply for the people he was called to lead?
And so, I look at my life.
What am I living for?
Am I living for something as valuable as the freedom of human souls living in bondage? Is what I’m living for going to die with me after my friends gather to remember my life and bury me in the ground?
What is worth doing in this world? I mean, really worth doing?
What am I living for?
At the end of the movie, I stuck around for a minute to gather my thoughts. Midway through the credits, I grabbed my jacket, stood up and started to walk out of the theater.
For whatever reason, I stole one last glance behind my shoulder at the people who remained in their seats.
To my amazement, the only people left in the theater were three or four couples of African-American descent, just sitting there. All of them were holding hands.
I walked out of the theater with my face buried deep in the sleeve of my jacket.
Lincoln was able to reach down deep into my heart in a way that very few movies are able to do, and the film was remarkably meaningful for me.
And at the risk of sounding presumptuous…I cannot imagine how much more meaningful the film was for those people still sitting there holding hands in the theater.
A hundred and fifty years after his death, millions of Americans are being reminded of a very human desire that I’m sure many of us had forgotten was there.
A desire to live — not just survive.
A desire to thrive — not just get by.
A desire to dream big — not just settle for normal.
A desire to make our lives count for something far grander than ourselves.
Not all of us will be privileged with creating as grand a legacy as Abraham Lincoln was able to leave behind.
But what’s to say we can’t try?