Our life’s work is an act of daily creation

“We are your opus. We are the music of your life.”

My wife and I watched Mr. Holland’s Opus the other night. Over the years I’ve seen bits and pieces of the movie but never watched the entire film. Typically, when you hear someone reference the movie, which is rare these days, it’s usually a movie critic or, at best, someone over 40 remembering it as “a classic.”

When someone calls a movie “a classic” I can’t say exactly what they mean, but to me calling something a classic means it’s good art. The philosopher Roger Scruton captured it fairly well when said that “art…reconciles us to human life, gives us a sense that life has an intrinsic meaning and as such is justified in itself.” This reconciliation to life’s turns and the intrinsic meaning to be found in it is exactly what we find in Mr. Holland’s Opus.

So what’s the film about?

Glenn Holland (played brilliantly by Richard Dreyfus) is an aspiring artist who dreams of writing a great symphony and becoming a renown composer one day. But, as is often the case, life has different plans. Holland takes a job as a high school music teacher to pay the bills. He thinks he’ll do this teaching gig for a few years, save some money, and hopefully break into the music business as a successful composer. He figures he’ll do the teaching job during the day and compose during his off-time, his “spare time.” Or so he’d hoped.

But of course life is rarely that simple or cooperative. Holland’s life and job become ever more consuming: He and his wife have a child; the boy turns out to be deaf and requires special–costly–services. They buy a new home. Holland must work during the summer breaks for extra money. Holland takes on tutoring some of his students before and after class. He’s placed on various after-school committees, and he’s put in charge of the marching band. Spare time, he finds, is a commodity he has very little of for composing music.

Gradually Holland’s dream of writing a great symphony, of becoming a great artist, fades in the careless flow of time. He accepts he’s not going to be a great composer of music, at least not now. But without quite realizing it Holland had been artfully composing something all along, just not music.

After 30 years of teaching music Holland is called in and told his career as a teacher has come to an end. The school system is cutting the music program. As Holland is leaving the school for the last time he hears noise in the auditorium and goes to find out what’s happening. As he (his wife and son) enter a filled auditorium the faculty, students, and many former students from over his career, stand and cheer him. It’s a surprise retirement party. They’ve all come together to celebrate Holland’s career. Glenn Holland, like so many of us, hadn’t achieved that youthful dream. He hadn’t written that great symphony, but he had been creating a master work all along. It would be realized in the cheering and smiling faces all around him.

Holland wasn’t able to give the world a great musical symphony, but he’d given his students something very valuable. He had given himself. He had given that most precious of human gifts that one human being can give to another: caring and attentiveness. He hadn’t realized it but throughout his years of teaching he’d been composing all along, but his symphony wasn’t of musical notes and beautiful sounds, it was a grand symphony of hope and inspiration.

The final scene of Mr. Holland’s Opus

The film is a classic because it’s good art: it reconciles us to life’s realities, and allows us to see (and feel) the intrinsic meaning in this reconciliation. Like Holland, many of us have had grand dreams about what we’d hoped to accomplish in our life but it didn’t work out, or at least not in the way we’d envisioned. Instead life took us in a different direction, and, is often the case, we found happiness, success, and meaning along this different path.

It wasn’t until the end of his career that Holland recognized the impact he’d made on so many lives. The writer of this film, the artist, wants to remind us that life itself can be a work of art. It’s ultimately up to each of us to recognize the artful impact of our daily life, and decide with each daily act and choice what we’re creating and what we’d like to be remembered for.

The writer’s task

A friend messaged me the other day about an idea he had for a book to write. He wanted my opinion. He thought maybe a book about presidents and their private interactions and personal acts of humanity, gleaned from things like private correspondences with unknown citizens, phone calls, secret visits, etc, etc. The kind of thing that a president had wanted to keep private.

It’s a great idea. And my friend is quite capable of writing that book if he so chooses. Biographers, I thought, spend years searching for just such private correspondences and actions in their attempt to understand the inner life of their subject.

Of course I immediately thought about the writer’s task in writing a book such as this. It’s a book about character, as all good (in the classical conception) novels, good biographies, or books about the secret life of a U.S. president, are. It’s a book about the quality of a soul. And the process of deep reading, and especially writing, about the inner life and character of another human being, makes us examine our own souls. Inside you’re asking yourself questions about your own motives and intentions. My friend had asked for a suggestion about who his subject should be.

As for suggestions, I can’t think of one right now, but I would consider…a President you didn’t necessarily agree with politically. It’s often more interesting, in my view, to discover we share common views and a very common humanity with people or Presidents who we’ve reflexively disagreed with because of our upbringing, inherited politics, and culture….Or what we’ve been told by others and accepted, rather than from what we’ve felt and learned with authentic attention and care. For example, let’s say you want to write a book like that, then I suggest maybe you begin by reading former President Obama’s new memoir coming out in November. Why? Not because you’ll agree with him, obviously not, but because your intention isn’t about agreement or disagreement but about whether you’re able to find sympathy with the humanity of people you disagree with. In some sense, it tests our ability to be honest with ourselves….and that’s much harder than we’d all like to believe.

I feel the writer’s first obligation is to truth. This is hard. Most of us are so conditioned by our environment and biases, that we’re simply unable (sometimes unwilling) to try and understand the world from the eyes of another soul. So he (my friend) should begin, I felt, by testing his own ability to be honest and objective about someone he knows he’ll disagree with. Can the writer absorb himself in the lives of others, with the intent to understand someone we often (or always) disagree with?…with what they did or the conclusions they reached?…or the mission they dedicated their life to?…and yet still find some genuine sympathy or agreement? There’s a good chance we will, and often it’s more so than we’d like others or ourselves to know.

And so to be a good writer—or a good observer of the world—and to prepare his mind for the quality of thinking and writing needed for this book about character, I felt my friend should begin by testing his own character. It’s hard work, but the results are felt by the reader on every page.

Fitzgerald’s lament

F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Once one is caught up into the material world not one person in ten thousand finds the time to form literary taste, to examine the validity of philosophic concepts for himself, or to form what, for lack of a better phrase, I might call the wise and tragic sense of life. By this I mean the thing that lies behind all great careers, from Shakespeare’s to Abraham Lincoln’s, and as far back as there are books to read — the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not “happiness and pleasure” but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.

The allure of beauty

“What quality is it that contains at once this simplicity and this majesty, this softness and this strength? . . . It is what all of Us — the terribly intelligent, the unhappy, the artistic, the divided, the overwhelmed — most intimately worship, and most passionately, most vainly love.”

— Lytton Strachey

Colorized 1931 photograph of Albert Einstein

“Personally, I experience the greatest degree of pleasure in having contact with works of art. They furnish me with happy feelings of an intensity that I cannot derive from other sources.”— Albert Einstein — Quoted by Moszkowski in Conversations with Einstein, 184

Albert Einstein at the premiere of the film City Lights, February 2, 1931, in Los Angeles, CA

I was fascinated by my discovery of the above picture on the internet recently. The picture looks like it might have been taken yesterday, and yet it’s actually a colorized 1931 black and white photo of Albert Einstein being escorted by Charlie Chaplin at the premiere of Chaplin’s new film, City Lights.

Most of us know Einstein as a towering scientific genius, but he was also a devoted patron of the arts. A man of immerse scientific and mathematical knowledge, he felt that the human imagination and a wonder at the mysteries of life were two of the greatest motivational forces of the human spirit.

As Einstein knew, science, at best, can tell us the what about the world, but it’s only in the Arts and Humanities (which includes religion) that we can discover the why or meaning of our lives. As Einstein told a friend, “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”