Welton Academy is known for its four pillars: Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence. Parents of young men send their sons to the private school where their sons will be trained as future leaders by instructors whose focus include virtue, leadership, high standards, and conformity. All of the faculty support, laud, and expect these demands to be met. The young men attending will become what their parents and instructors tell them they should be.
Welton, the setting of the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society, has one instructor, John Keating, who does not conform. He is more interested in helping the young men in his classes to discover their hearts and the passion and gifts within them. He wants them to look at things in a different way, through a different lens and to find their own voices. Clearly, his teaching is unorthodox as he tells them to rip pages out of texts on poetry and stands on his desk quoting Walt Whitman’s poem “Oh Captain! My Captain”.
As the movie unfolds, the young men in his class begin to recognize dead poets have much to teach them (as does Mr. Keating). A small group of them form a “dead poets society” in a quest to discover life beyond conformity and perhaps learn who they were meant to be.
Scene by scene, the young men risk moving out of the staid surroundings of Welton and explore what is hidden in the lines of the dead poets and what is also hidden within them.
The film allows you to get to know several of the young men well. Among those that stand out are Todd Anderson and Neil Perry. Todd’s shy, anxious uncertainty is slowly eclipsed by the glimpses of something more that open in the group and Mr. Keating’s class.
The faculty and administration appreciate none of this discovery of their true selves and soon John Keating finds himself in deep trouble.
Neil Perry’s story highlights self-discovery as he determines to take part in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in school. His heart bursts with enthusiasm and joy to play the role of Puck and he pronounces to his friends and Mr. Keating, “For the first time in my life, I know what I want to do.”
Sadly, his father counted on Welton shaping his son into a future doctor and when he goes to the campus and sees his son in the theatrical production, he shames him and pulls him out of Welton with plans to send him to a military school. So high were his expectations for his son that they had become demands.
Neil’s heart is wrenched in two by the shame and with no friends to support him and no Mr. Keating to help him process his deep pain, he determines he cannot shut down his heart for the demands of his father and makes a disastrous choice to end his life rather to live with his heart dead within him.
John Keating is devastated and fired, despite inspiring all his students to see beyond the moment to the possibility and an extraordinary life. Their discoveries honor Mr. Keating as he leaves his office for the last time as one-by-one they stand on their desks saying “Oh Captain! My Captain!”.
The tragedy of Neil that unfolds in the story highlights how tenacious the fight is within us to become wholehearted when we have been fragmented.
For most of us, when our hearts break off pieces and we hide and devalue parts of us, shame needs some relief. Chuck DeGroat in Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and the Divided Self describes it this way: “Shame feels like a kind of slime that clings tenaciously to us, impossible to wash away.”
The shame can become intolerable and in our desperation to be free of it, we look to doing more in the hopes of becoming more and hiding from others how we feel.
DeGroat puts it this way:
“Desperation leads to a sense of scarcity. Instead of courageously leaning into our heart’s deepest fear—I’m not enough—we project outward into people or things that might satisfy the ache, the hunger, even for a brief moment.
Because we’re fueled by the belief that we’re not enough, parts of us go into overdrive, frantically seeking the satisfaction we crave in more success, a better body, or the approval of others.”
We go beyond busy to a life of busyness to block out what is going on inside, looking for some way to live with the growing fragmentation that is causing us to lose our hearts.
Too often this habit follows us after we come to know the Lord.
Perhaps John Eldredge and Brent Curtis say it best in The Sacred Romance.
“In the end, it doesn’t matter how well we have performed or what we have accomplished—a life without heart is not worth living. For out of the wellspring of our soul flows all true caring and all meaningful work, all real worship and all sacrifice. Our faith, hope, and love issue from this fount, as well. Because it is in our heart that we first hear the voice of God and it is in the heart that we come to know him and learn to live in his love,”
Come with me next time as we look at whether busy and busyness means the same thing and how we can move from “the yellow brick road” to regain our hearts.