John Keating, Robin Williams’ character in the movie Dead Poets Society, delivered this famous speech: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life? Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
When we were children, we believed there was no limit to the “verses” we would contribute to the script of life. We believed we would be scientists that cured diseases or astronauts that discovered aliens. No one ever said, “Well son, to be an astronaut you’d have to complete a bachelor degree in a STEM field, become a jet pilot, and complete at least 1,000 hours of command time before you can even apply to the NASA program. It also helps if you have a military background, posses advanced degrees in your field of expertise, and are independently wealthy.” Grownups don’t say that to five year olds, but we certainly say it to ourselves, don’t we?
If we hope that our little ones will someday contribute their verse, why do we settle for not contributing our own verses? Why do we settle for “the noble and necessary pursuits” but forget the weighty goodness of “what we stay alive for”? We can all think of the usual reasons: there are bills to pay, people to support, or degrees that seem unattainable. But there are also reasons we don’t like to talk about: fear of failure, fear of heartbreak, fear of vulnerability, fear, fear, fear.
Fear, by definition is, “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” If I had a penny for every time someone said, “I could never do what you do. It we be too hard”… My response is always if not me, then who? The truth is it IS hard. It IS heartbreaking. It is draining. When we decided to do foster care, we chose the risk of loss over the fear of loss. I was tired of missing out on Life because of Fear – an unfounded belief that I could never contribute a verse that would be good enough. I was afraid I would fail. I was afraid I would hurt. I was afraid I would lose. I was just afraid.
Walt Whitman begs the reader to consider why they exist. He begs us to believe that Life, that powerful play, is happening NOW, for no other reason than that you may contribute a verse! The responsibilities and duties of the world are great (that’s undeniable), but pale in comparison to what we truly live for: “poetry, beauty, romance, love”. Or – excuse my reach – to put it another way: Order, Goodness, Fulfillment, Acceptance. Isn’t that what we all long for after all?
What, then, will your verse be? Will you bring Order to a chaotic world? Will you choose difficult Goodness over an easier, safer way? Will you risk heartache for Fulfillment? Will you Accept yourself for who you are and let others do the same?
At OMD we strive for these things. We don the black aprons and choose the difficult way, the heartbreaking way, the vulnerable way. And at the end of the day when we say goodbye to the children, exchange heavy nods with their social workers, and hang up our aprons we know that we have soundly contributed a verse to this play of Life.
So I ask you, what will your verse be?