In “Dead Poets Society”, Robin Williams plays English professor John Keating, who inspired his class of English boarding school boys to a love of poetry. He wants to mold them so that they learn to imagine new possibilities and dream new dreams for their lives.
In a key speech near the beginning of the movie, in a hallway with portraits of famous men, he urges the boys, “Carpe diem; seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
I wrote about this 4 or so years ago, and this year I was reflecting on that again as we approach this thanksgiving weekend. There is indeed a place and time in life for us all to seize the day, to take bold and courageous action. The world needs such witnesses to goodness and truth. Carpe diem, indeed.
But there is also a time in life for us to simply “recipe diem”, “receive the day”. One of my favourite prayers in the Anglican tradition comes from the service of Compline (night prayer): “O God, your unfailing providence sustains the earth which nurtures us and the life we live: watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
This prayer reminds us that the world which we inhabit, the lives we share, all that we are and all that we have, comes to us as a gift. Our lives are bounded by grace and undeserved generosity. It is not something we can seize or hold. We can only receive and give thanks.
“Recipe diem.” To receive in this way is not a passive thing. It is an active attentiveness to each moment as an irreplaceable, intimate gift. Buddhism calls it the practice of mindfulness. We are mindful of each joy in our life, each breath, each person, each event. We pay attention, and as we do so, we delight once again in the sheer giftedness of life.
The prayer also reminds us that we are dependant on each other’s toil. The notion of an autonomous individual is false. It is fundamentally absurd. We are born into, and dependent upon a web of relationships from start to finish. We live with others. Our lives are deeply interconnected with other lives. Part of the discipline of active, attentive gratitude is giving thanks for everyone else.
Margaret Visser, in her book “The Gift of Thanks”, writes, “Gratitude is always a matter of paying attention, of deliberately beholding and appreciating the other.” Thanksgiving is a good reminder to pay attention and deliberately behold and appreciate others as we acknowledge our dependence on one another.
This Thanksgiving, I’m going to be grateful for the giftedness of my life. I will give thanks for all those other folk on whose toil my life depends. That includes family and friends. But it also includes a whole host of people who are unknown to me, all those who had a hand in making my Thanksgiving feast possible: those who planted, those who harvested, those who processed and packed, those who drove the trucks and those who loaded and unloaded the trucks, those who stocked the shelves and those who checked out the groceries. I thank the power company electrician who makes sure the power gets to my home, sometimes in inclement weather.
I will also thank sister turkey and brother pig for the sacrifice of their lives for my nourishment. This web of mutual dependency also includes non–human creatures with whom we share this world.
One of the things I wish to learn is to be more mindful. Thanksgiving reminds me once again, in the midst of all my busy–ness to “recipe diem”, to know that it doesn’t all depend on me but that there are times I can simply receive the goodness that comes as sheer gift.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook