A class of boys assembles in front of a trophy case filled with mementos of the achievements of other boys; once their age, now long gone. Robin Williams, lurking behind them, whispers, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
This familiar line from Dead Poets Society, voted among the top 100 movie quotes by the American Film Institute, has a message both clear and memorable; it is one of many clichés and adages exhorting us to make the most of the limited time we have.
We have all had concerned friends tell us to “Stop and smell the roses” as we overwork or over study ourselves. Or perhaps they warn us, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” reminding us of the ever dwindling time we have to accomplish our goals before we become rose fertilizer.
So what are we supposed to do? Gather the roses or smell them? Work hard or pursue temporal pleasure? It seems impossible to choose one. And despite all the clichés in the world, we don’t have to. The notion that enjoyment and accomplishment are mutually exclusive is, frankly, soul-crushing. It is also plain wrong.
There are very few things every human will do. One certainty is being born, another is dying. The time between the former and the latter is what we make of it. We are always aware of our mortality on some level. But we clearly aren’t aware enough, because our behavior would seem to indicate some kind of delusional belief in immortality.
Why else would we waste hours away watching television shows we don’t actually enjoy? How else could we justify taking classes we don’t want to and then sleepwalking our way through them? What else could explain the multitude of unpursued dreams, unaccomplished goals and uncaptured love?
It must be because we think enjoyment and accomplishment are somehow unrelated. I am here to tell you smelling the roses and seizing the day are quite the same thing. Life is the rose, accomplishment is the smelling. But too often, too many of us divorce the act of appreciation from its object. We either think work cannot be enjoyable, or we think taking enjoyment in work somehow detracts from it.
I have been lucky enough to have a teacher who both espouses the virtues of and practices the industrious smelling of roses. Ethan Sperry, director of the Miami University Men’s Glee Club and Collegiate Chorale, works extremely hard, enjoys it a great deal and has quite a bit to show for his efforts.
In the handbooks of his groups, Sperry writes, “The famous poet, Ben Johnson, once said ‘All performances of human art, at which we look with praise and wonder, are instances of the resistless force of perseverance.’ I firmly believe the great works of humankind come from tremendous work and effort more than raw talent. I often think anyone whom we think of as talented is just someone who works hard.”
In this case, Sperry is trying to get each member of his choirs to put in the work necessary to make excellent music. But anyone Sperry has ever taught has learned much more from him than how to work hard at singing. There are a lot of things to work hard at in life and a lot of things to enjoy in life. Sperry has taught me they are one and the same.
Cosmically speaking, none of us have very much time left. Sperry’s obvious passion for music, the hard work he pours into it and the breathtaking results his work yields have inspired his students to do the same for our respective passions. Whether you want to smell the rose, grow it, study it, sell it, paint it or write about it, go ahead and put everything you have into it. Your talent will eventually fail you; your hard work will always pay off.
Sperry is leaving Miami at the end of this year to raise his children closer to family on the west coast. His departure will be tough on him and his students, but the 10 years he spent here were phenomenal for both. I would presume to say Sperry regrets not having more time to spend here, but doesn’t regret the manner in which he spent it.
Could many of us say the same thing upon graduation? Could we say the same thing at the moment of our death? The time we have is limited. Our time in high school, in college, the time we have living in our parents’ home, the time we spend in the workforce, the time we have with our spouse, with our children, the time we have on this earth; no matter how we subdivide it, all time is finite. When each epoch of our lives comes to an end, and when our lives themselves end, we should not have to suffer from regret. Whether the end is sudden and unexpected – as is the case far too often – or whether it is a predictable end such as graduation or retirement, we should all be able to take solace in the knowledge that we have spent our time wisely; that we have earned our sleep.