Robin Williams and The First Day of School and the Powerful Play

I’ve always said my favorite movie is Dead Poets Society. There’s something inspirational about the way Mr. Keating breathes life into a group of boys who desperately needed someone to believe in them. If you don’t think the English language can powerfully affect people, well, here’s Mr. Keating himself: “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

As Mr. Keating, Robin Williams gives his students passion and purpose and hope. It’s sad, then, that hope was not ultimately fulfilling both for one of his students in the movie and for the man himself, who committed suicide this week.

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’Tis the season for school to be starting. In fact, my kids are in the middle of their first day as we speak. They head off to a fresh new year with new shoes, haircuts, clothes and backpacks. They’re excited, nervous, bummed that summer is over, glad to see their friends and even up for learning new things (sort of). They’re ready to challenged, ready to grow, and in the case of a few, ready to be goofballs like you would imagine Robin Williams was.

His parents may have watched him march off to school each year with joy in their hearts and smiles on their faces. Their dream was not that one day, despite massive success in the world’s eyes, he would commit suicide. Their dream was the same as yours and mine – that he would be happy and healthy.

And yet, that’s the not the end of my dream for my kids as they break new ground this year. It’s not the end of the dream for any Christian parent. The ultimate dream is that the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ would reach into our kids’ lives and trade their broken souls for whole ones.

Wait, broken? Yep. We’re all messed up. We don’t have to teach our kids how to be lazy at school, say mean things to their friends and slack off on their homework. They do all that just fine. We have to teach them how to do it the right way. That’s the effect of sin. An even greater effect is the breaking of our relationship with a holy God. Sin breaks it. Christ restores it. Our kids – and all of us – need Christ.

I didn’t know Robin Williams. I don’t pretend to know anything about mental illness. But I do know I’ve seen God change situations that seemed unchangeable. I know nothing is beyond him. And that’s the hope I hold onto as my kids march bright-eyed into a world where famous actors and beloved friends commit suicide, where a 16-year old driver dies in the blink of eye, where 3-year old girls drown, where there’s disease and suffering and pain and death. We can’t face that on our own, and if we try, we’ll inevitably be overwhelmed. It’s impossible.

The only hope is someone who can rise above, who in fact has already beaten death at death’s own game.

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There’s a scene in Dead Poets Society where Williams quotes Walt Whitman in answer to the question of why we should continue amid the struggles of life:

“Answer: that you are here — that life exists, and identity.
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

Our kids are contributing verses today. We’re contributing verses. Let’s make them count for eternity.

And oh yeah, here’s the closing scene of Dead Poet’s Society. Gets me every time:

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