Monday, July 10, 2006

Thoughts on death and the Dead Poets' Society

Today I attended the visitation of a student with whom I ran track high school. He was shot in the chest on Friday night as part of what seems to have been an armed robbery and died in surgery. Tommy was 19.

As I was standing in the line to speak to the grieving parents, I was wondering what to tell them... "I know what you're going through" was an obvious non-choice. "God will use it for something good" is certainly truth, but didn't seem to be the appropriate truth to bring up at the moment. As for "It'll be OK"...well, maybe it will, but there is no way I'm going to try to assure them of this right now. So I stood there and debated proper eloquence until it was my turn to give his mother a hug, and I mumbled something that was probably less than profound and moved on. I really wasn't that close to him anyway, I tell myself.

So what is my point, and how does this relate to the Dead Poets' Society? In this way: In the movie, Robin Williams stars as a literature teacher who encourages his students to do things like walk around and see the courtyard their own way, to go ouitside the beaten path, basically, to ignore tradition and live by their own rules. And that is the essence of the relation.

My generation is one that prides itself on ignoring tradition. Generation X, or whatever letter they've assigned us, it is expected, will do its own thing. I suppose each generation sees this in the subsequent one, and college is a very special breeding ground for this "free thinking."

But whatever.

My point is that we ignore traditions, and in this case, ritual, to our own detriment. I think that when we hear the word ritual, we envision a Greek Orthodox church service, doing things a very strict and certain way. But today I witnessed a ritual that has helped countless people deal with what might otherwise be unbearable. Funerals carry us through times of unimaginable loss. Without them, I suspect many families would simply not know what to do. So we go through the motions of the visitation, the funeral, the burial, the time as a family, etc, and come out of it all having had a few days to grive, and hopefully able to pick up and carry on.

When we do something simply because 'we've always done it that way,' there can be danger to it. But there is a good chance that people who came before us have dealt with the same things, and maybe we should build on what others have seen instead of scrapping it and starting over our own way.

Take it for what it's worth, which is as always, probably what you paid for it.


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