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Making Lives Extraordinary


Throughout history, there are people who live ordinary lives, and those who live life to its fullest. What truly distinguishes an ordinary life from an extraordinary life? Obviously, not everyone can live an extraordinary life, or else there wouldn’t be a distinction between a normal life and an outstanding one. The best route to achieve phenomenal life is through non-conformity. This theme appears in modern works such as The Dead Poets Society, and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Despite the many advantages in conformity, struggling through the path of nonconformity will lead to an extraordinary life. 

Many people prefer to conform because of all of its advantages and benefits, but what they do not realize is that it prevents them from leading extraordinary lives. One advantage includes not needing to think for yourself, or on a larger scale, not having to think at all. Also, conformists just follow the flow of society, in order to blend in and be accepted; hiding their true identity. In The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Henry David Thoreau is portrayed as a non-conformist who tries to do the exact opposite of society in every action he takes. He states that in America there is “a whole country of [people] who only want to be liked” (Lawrence and Lee 13). Thoreau’s message implies that when people pay their taxes, they conform to the government, whose goal is to rule for the common good. It must be taken into account though, that Thoreau believes that the US republic converted into an oppressive government betraying the original ideals of the revolution. In The Dead Poets Society, after being interrogated by Mr. Nolan, Cameron completely conforms to all of his demands in order to evade trouble. When he returns to his friends he tells them “If you guys are smart, you will do exactly what I did and cooperate” (Dead Poets Society script). When he says cooperate, he really means conform to all of Noland’s demands, even if they are not true. Conformity also has its benefits in 1984, by George Orwell. In the society in 1984, everyone conforms to the point that they all believe that 2+2=5. The people here cannot stop conforming, or else they will be persecuted until they are forced to conform once again. Another advantage to conforming is you are accepted, and not a pariah. Henry David Thoreau does the opposite, by not paying his taxes, so he is made into an outcast. In addition, a conformist never has to stand up for any beliefs, whether personal, or for other people. Even when Henry is free from jail, he attempts to get his cellmate Bailey free as well. Bailey has never had anybody “in his life [who] has ever stood up for him like this” (Lawrence and Lee 100). The reason for this is most people never stand up for what they really believe in due to conformity, and not to stand out and be different. Henry Thoreau also stands up for Williams, a black run-away slave, when he says “I’ve got no more stomach for slavery than you do. Here you’re as free as I am” (Lawrence and Lee 82). It is ironic when Henry says this, because Henry isn’t free at all in the physical world, but his true freedom comes in his mind and his imagination. Even though conforming has advantages, it has one major drawback, which is it forces the conformist to lead and live an ordinary life marked by nothing unique or special.

Conforming is not only advantageous, but it can also be very dangerous, which reveals non-conforming as the only way to really live life to its fullest. In The Dead Poets Society, all the boys have their lives already chosen and planned out for them in terms of their future vocations. Neal’s dad forces him to drop out of the Annual because he doesn’t want his son to have too many extracurricular activities. Neal’s dad wants Neal to “finish medical school [and then he] can do whatever [he] damn well please[s]” (Dead Poets Society script). After Neal’s dad leaves, the other boys talk to Neal, and it turns out that they also conform to whatever their parents tell them to do. Later on, Neal comes face to face with the same problem again, but this time it is about the school play. Neal has the main part, and his dad should be nothing but thrilled for him, but instead is furious and demands that he drops out. Neal ends up not fulfilling his dad’s wishes, and therefore getting into trouble later when his dad finds out that he did not quit. Ultimately Neal commits suicide because he is unable to tell his dad about his true passion of acting. Neal’s teacher Mr. John Keating is the new literature teacher who has a rather unique method of teaching. The first thing he teaches his students is Carpe Diem, which means, “to seize the day”. Mr. Keating tells his students “Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary” (Dead Poets Society script). He tells them if they try to seize the day by living life to its fullest. Later on he gives them a lesson on “the dangers of conformity.” In this lesson he tells each boy to chose his own path, which is a metaphor for the path in life that they will choose. Ironically Charlie Dalton doesn’t choose any path, and he says that he is “exercising the right not to walk” (Dead Poets Society script). Of course Mr. Keating’s main purpose of this exercise is “to illustrate the point of conformity: the difficulty in maintaining your own beliefs in the face of others” (Dead Poets Society script). Mr. Keating later forces Todd to present his poem in front of the class, and to disregard what everyone else thinks. Todd was really scared to be original and to not conform to what everyone else was doing. When Mr. Keating closes Todd’s eyes and told to say whatever came to his mind, he teaches him to be a real individual, and to live life to its fullest. Likewise, In Henry Thoreau’s mind, he creates amazing and powerful situations. In one of these situations, he is teaching a young woman by the name of Ellen to stay true to herself. Henry tells her and the class,  “Miss Swell, I want you to be yourself- not your idea of what you think is somebody else’s idea of yourself…So- each of you- be very careful to find out and pursue your own way!” (Lawrence and Lee 29). The lesson that Henry gives is very similar if not almost exactly the same as the one that Mr. Keating gives. The only difference is that Henry puts a large emphasis on nature, as he calls himself a naturalist, and uses nature to find his true self, and live life to its fullest.

Living life to the fullest becomes a personal issue, if the person is truly willing to make the commitment to actually try to seize the day, and make the most out of everything. Only if the disadvantages of conforming outweigh the advantages can one truly become an extraordinary person, and lead a unique and extraordinary life.

© 2006 Philosophy Paradise