The following blog post is taken from an ethics speech that Middle School teacher-coach-mentor Case Anderson (pictured above) delivered to students and faculty. He shares why remembering to live — a full, ethical life marked by reflection — is the most important thing we can do. Before the speech, the Middle School boys kindly obliged Mr. Anderson's request to shoot a short video wishing his sister, Sally, a happy 30th birthday — a gesture she found quite moving and one that helped illustrate the central point of Case's speech.
This is my second ethics speech during my time at Landon, and I have to admit, the process of coming up with a topic can be a daunting one, an experience fraught with not a little anxiety. It was during the faculty back-to-school days in August that I agreed to give this talk and, having the option of when to go, I chose January, thinking, This will be perfect; I'll knock it out over winter break, and come back in January with a draft already completed. Naturally, winter break came and went, and I still hadn't written a word. I fell victim to that foe many of you know also: procrastination. But it wasn't sheer laziness that caused my delay — at least, I'd like not to think so. It was the daunting task of finding something worthy to present you with. Last time, in May of 2016, ideas came easily. "Advice to my middle school self" became my topic — and then boom, done. It seemed to write itself.
But this time the process was a little more difficult. I started thinking about the meaning of the word "ethics" and how it applies to our Landon setting. Being a teacher of words, I'm of course going to give you the etymology of this particular one, ethics. It's a slippery word in a sense because today we use it in a variety of ways, but ultimately it derives from the Greek word ethos, which has to do with character, as in the character of an individual or of a culture. And it's even more closely related to ethikos, a derivation of ethos, which involves the habits of an individual or culture.
So, in my understanding of it, ethics cannot merely or simply be a code or something we state as a way to live our lives. It involves more than that: it involves forming habits that result in a code, or at the very least, support the code of a community that you are a part of. Put another way, ethics is a process that we are constantly engaging in — sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing to move ourselves closer to the ultimate ethos or code we wish to attain.
Having this information should be eye-opening to you as students: Landon's commitment to ethics explains why, in a time-crunched schedule, we meet in our ethics groups once per cycle at the expense of other options, and it explains why faculty are asked to give ethics talks frequently throughout the school year. We are always in the process of becoming ethical people, and we need reminders that reinforce our ethical values.
Interestingly, knowing this also allows me to view the daunting task of coming up with a topic for my ethics talk as a gift, rather than a burden. What an opportunity to be able to sit down and think about what is good and what is right and how one should live! Just like several eighth graders have noted in their "This I Believe" speeches, perspective is a powerful and transformative concept. It was tempting at times to view giving this talk as just another thing to do in an already overcrowded schedule, but without it, I likely would not have taken the opportunity to reflect seriously in this way about what's important in life. We need to embrace these opportunities when they arise, as they allow for introspection and a chance to figure out what matters most to us as humans.
According to Plato, in his Apologia recorded 2,400 years ago, his teacher and mentor, Socrates, famously said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." The meaning of this statement is pretty stark, if you think about it; after all, he didn't say, "The examined life is worth living"; he said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Taken as literally as possible, and I don't think the Greeks would have us take it any other way, a life without reflection, a life without thinking about what matters, is essentially pointless and bereft of value.
Socrates said these words in explaining his principled decision to accept the death penalty, recently levied upon him, rather than proposing an alternative form of punishment that might save his life but leave him unable to educate others and lead a life of self-contemplation.
Fortunately for us, the stakes are not so high. But one of my hopes in giving this talk is that you will embrace the process of character formation that one of history's greatest philosophers — and, I might add, Landon — has found to be of paramount significance to our lives. So that's my first point: embrace chances for character formation. Make your life worth living. Think deeply about what matters in life, both in ethics class and outside of it, at Landon and beyond the white rocks. In short, make Socrates proud.
My second point builds off my first, but it absorbs character formation within its purview and expands into other areas of your life. And this point is an easy one for people to say, but it's really tough to put into practice. It's so difficult because it demands your best at all times, and that requires hard work, persistence, pushing through pain, adversity, tedium, and much, much more. I'm just going to tell you what it is right here: I, Mr. Anderson; we, your teachers; and the Landon community want you to commit yourselves to excellence.
Commit yourself to excellence. This ideal is going to look different for every single person in this room. We all have different talents, abilities, interests and opportunities. Not everyone is going to be the "A" student. That's OK. For some people, committing yourself to excellence means pulling your math grade up from the high 70s to the mid-80s. In doing this, you make yourself better and you set an example that makes your classroom and our community better. Or maybe you're not the star of your sports team — that's all the more reason to outwork others in practice to get the most out of each rep, out of each drill, and in doing so you will make not only yourself but also your team better. If you happen to be the star, or a star, of your sports team, don't waste your own talent; develop it, and in the process help others get better around you.
I'll be the first to admit it: committing yourself to excellence can be difficult. It might require going to see your teacher at recess when all of your friends are heading to the blacktop. It might mean staying after practice to get extra reps with a teammate or coach, or getting to practice early for the same reason. But there's no excuse not to try, not to maximize your potential. It's what we demand of you, and it's what you should demand of yourself.
When I was in high school, my wrestling coach had a saying that goes like this: "If it were easy, everyone would do it." In a way, this is kind of the secret to life. He was referring to the hard work required to perform at your very best, at your maximum potential, specifically on the wrestling mat, but this mantra can apply to any facet of your life.
Of course, it's easy and very relatable to your specific demographic to put this message in a sports context. For example, for the past few weeks, my wrestlers have heard me and the other coaches asking them to get the most they can out of each practice, out of each drill, out of each rep. Go to the whistle. We said this specifically with the hope of beating Mater Dei in mind — which, I might add, we did last week, 36–33, and we're very proud of the team's efforts and hope they will continue to work that hard moving forward. But it's not winning or losing that matters in the final tally. The real question is, "Did you get the most out of your ability while you had the chance to?"
I hope, as I said, that our wrestlers become the best athletes they can be, but the idea we're trying to instill — which all of Landon is trying to instill — is that committing yourself to excellence applies to many areas of your life. Be the best student you can be, the best brother you can be, the best son, friend, you name it — and when you're older, take pride in your professional efforts, be a good husband and father. Commit yourself to excellence.
On to my final point, which I'd like to illustrate by talking about a scene from the movie Dead Poets Society, starring Robin Williams and Ethan Hawke, about a group of students and their English teacher at an all-boys prep school (sound familiar?) — set in the 1950s, though.
Robin Williams's character emphasizes the Latin phrase carpe diem, or "seize the day," and shows those old, yearbook-style photographs to encourage his students to get the most out of life, to "make [their] lives extraordinary." But I'd actually like to modify this saying a bit, and I'll tell you why in just a second, so the third point of this speech is actually "Carpe diem... sort of."
You see, carpe diem on its own prioritizes the present moment over the future. It tells you, have fun, seize the moment, and right now. It's YOLO with a classical bent. Carpe diem, however, is actually just a small piece of a larger phrase, coming from the Roman poet Horace's Odes in the first century B.C. The entire phrase encourages the listener to, and I quote, "Seize the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow" — essentially because who knows if tomorrow will even come? But I disagree with the notion of not trusting that tomorrow will eventually arrive. Under that interpretation, carpe diem becomes an excuse to stay up late with your friends instead of doing tomorrow's homework, which — let me make it clear — I am not advising.
Returning to the heavier, darker theme in Williams's words for a moment, on the other side of the coin from carpe diem is the phrase memento mori, which is used as a noun now (often represented by a skull or, interestingly enough, an arrangement of dancing skeletons) but in its original is an imperative verb plus an infinitive verb meaning "remember to die," or "remember that you must die."
In medieval Christian times it was the opposite of YOLO, a reminder to hold fast to your moral virtues and not revel in excess so that you could be worthy of entering the pearly gates one day. Before that, in classical antiquity, it was used as a kind of humbling device. According to historical sources, when a successful Roman general was awarded a "triumph," which was a huge parade through the city streets with thousands of cheering citizens, often as a result of his military victories, a slave or servant would sit behind him in his chariot whispering, "Memento mori" into his ear, imploring him to remember that he will die, remember that he is mortal. He is not a god, even though he may feel like one in that moment. But this is also kind of extreme — not to mention pretty depressing for a Middle School ethics talk — so what exactly am I advising?
Well, here's where my sister's 30th birthday comes into play. Being the nostalgist that I am, I knew I'd be concerned with the passage of time when I learned that I was to deliver this talk right around the date that my sister Sally turned 30. You see, it seems like just yesterday that my sister and I were your age. She is three years younger than I am, and while we annoyed the living daylights out of each other as children, we always had love for each other when it counted, and now we're pretty good friends. But in a flash, that 12-year-old is now 30, and I won't state my age, but you can surely do the math. And it's not like we're even that old either — at least, not by adult standards. (Though the non-adults may beg to differ.) But time flies, or tempus fugit for the Latin scholars, and here we are.
So, finally, how do we live, wanting to carpe diem but knowing that we must memento mori because tempus fugit? Well, here's my answer, and once again, it's in Latin: memento vivere. It means "remember to live." Remember to live.
In my mind, this is the two extremes I have mentioned previously refined into a statement that captures the best and the essence of it all. It is an imperative, which means an order or a command: remember! It tells us to do. We must always remember to live.
In a sense, there is a burden upon us to heed this call. When you remember to live, you are aware that time is fleeting and that you must seize the day in the process. You should do somewhat outlandish things (like get an entire Middle School to wish your sister a happy birthday), assuming you can do so without unreasonably disrupting the lives of others or adversely affecting the flow of an institution. But also, in the process of remembering to live, you must recall Robin Williams's heavier words, made even more poignant by his tragic and premature end several years ago, the ones that point towards memento mori.
This recognition is what makes committing yourself to excellence so important — you've only got one chance at this life, make the most of it — and why embracing opportunities for character development when they emerge is so crucial. A long time from now, when you look back on your life, how do you want to be remembered? As someone who made the most of your athletic or intellectual capacities, of course, but I'd hope that you also want to be thought of as a good or ethical person, who made choices that helped others, that limited suffering, that were principled and dedicated towards a higher ideal.If, as the word ethikos implies, our character is the product of our habits, then there is an imperative to start today, and to follow these ideals each and every day while you memento vivere. With this in mind, cherish your friends and family, make the best of the time you have on this earth, and most of all, remember to live. The poet Mary Oliver writes, "Tell me" — an imperative there, a command. "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" I hope you will remember to live.