A sentiment that I have drawn on for decades, is that we don’t need a near-death experience, to live every day as if it were our last. When I was growing up, The Dead Poets Society with Robin Williams and a young Ethan Hawke, really stuck with me.
There is a scene when Mr. Keating (Williams) makes his English class reflect on the school motto: Carpe Diem. While inspecting the yellowed photos of sporting teams past in the trophy cabinet, Keating describes the monochrome faces of the players; their hopes and their dreams. He then tells the boys that all of these boys are now…‘pushing up the daises’. He creeps around their shoulders whispering the motto in their ears – Seize The Day. Later they read poetry to each other that urges them to suck out the marrow of life, before it’s gone.
It is clear by this point in the film that the school leaders and other teachers hardly embrace the school motto themselves: the strict rules and rituals; reciting Latin; scalding kids for dreaming out the window; and studying doorstep manuals on poetry theory. The futures of the ‘Dead Poets Society’ members are already pre-ordained: lawyer, doctor, banker. Keating encourages the boys in his class to think for themselves. When he takes them out to the quadrant, and urges them to walk around independently, they soon begin to fall in line; syncing with each other; almost without thinking.
As viewers of the film or readers of the book will know, once their minds are freed, it doesn’t end well for the students or for their teacher.
“Captain, my Captain!”
Schools were created not to produce creative and divergent thinkers, but to produce soldiers and factory workers; army officers and managers. It seems that reflecting creatively on your life and the world we live in is a distraction from these things; it is dangerous and must be discouraged.
Poetry, as in life, is not about theories and structures, or following patterns of behaviour. It is about becoming aware of your senses, being mindful of what they are telling you, and to live in the present, not planning for a future that may never happen.
In the summer of 2020, as the sun shone through a Norfolk wood, I received a phone call. It was from a man who I did not know, and had only met once. He had called to tell me that I had cancer.
I remember having an out of body feeling. A thought in the abstract, that here was a moment where, I, Ben Cowan was being told that they had found cancer in my body.
Instinctively, you know that this moment is going to change your life forever. Perhaps even end it prematurely. Since then, my family and I have gone through all kinds of awfulness – scans, surgeries, radiation to the face and chemicals in the blood, but then this was during the pandemic lockdown, so we were not the only ones living through awfulness.
It’s the treatment that punishes you, not the cancer; at least early on. The pain, the burns, the nausea, the ‘nil by mouth’ for months, losing your sense of taste and smell. While I was going to treatments and wasting away, I could only focus on the day-to-day. You say to yourself, if I can just get past this month, this week, this night. If I can just get through this hour until the pain meds kick in. I can make this fire in the wood burner at 4am, watch The Crown, episode 3, series 2. By the time scene three starts, the opiate tincture will have kicked in.
Apparently, the final words of Goethe, the German philosopher and poet were, “More light!”.
Look, I did not die. I might still. Well, we all will. The only certainty in life is death. But I decided that my last words would not be, “More joy!”
Even before my diagnosis, this death-bed scenario had been a great help in making life decisions. I knew that when the time came, I would never say, “I wish I would have spent less time with my kids, or more time at an office desk.” Instead, take control of my life and do what lights me up.
I decided that I would not become fodder for the cannon and foundry. Instead, I would be time-rich and cash poor. Every pound saved, would be a pound earned.
Sorry, this blog, Ideas Worth Sharing is starting to sound like Thought for the Day on Radio 4’s Today Programme, where a religious orator makes sense for 90 seconds and then can’t help but mention Jesus, or the Bible, or The Vaders. That said, I’ve got an art design about this subject... “More Joy!”
The design has made its way to its ‘natural home’, which is apparel, such as a T-shirt. The idea – there is always an idea behind it - is by wearing a T-shirt with say – SuperDry – it can say More Joy. Which means that today, I will create and experience more joy for me and for the people around me. But not just that, we can evolve the idea, and make it - I don’t know – ironic, because that makes it ‘on-brand’. So just as Superdry designs are filled with gloriously meaningless phrases, I can fill this design with outrageous statements, like ‘Instant gratification guaranteed’.
This is the idea that products can make you happy, like the pleasure drug, 'soma' in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Or nonsense, yet suggestive phrases like, ‘hand-woven for pleasure’.
Talking of marketing phrases, I have mine to. The clothing range brand is called, ‘Unbranded’, and one of the straplines is, ‘Never unknowingly ironic’, which parodies the John Lewis customer guarantee. There is an element of, if you cannot beat them – the capitalism xxxxs – then, join ‘em; and I know that ‘living ironically’ can mean the road to cynicism and not taking anything seriously, but I believe you can still buy things that define you, its basically a way of saying, “I want more of this in the world.” When you buy a sweat-shop T-shirt with a Nike swoosh on it, or any other global commercial brand, is that really what you are saying, or want to be saying?
In fact, a good end to this blog, is a question, “What are you saying, when you wear global commercial brands?” By the way, you are at liberty to say, “What - on earth – are you trying to say, Ben?” Fair point. But then that’s what the ‘blog comments’ section is for, right?
Have a very joyful 2023!
Till next time; Carpe Diem! ...and if you haven't already, please sign up to my blog - BEN TALKS: Ideas Worth Sharing
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Thanks for this Ben. I’m so sorry to read about your illness but am glad to see you have come such a long way with it and sound as positive, determined and creative as ever! I pray you continue to make progress towards a full and lasting recovery.
Dipping into your website and blogs every now and then, never fails to get me thinking.
We are living in the so called developed West, across which there seems to be an increasingly desperate pursuit for ‘personal identity’. More important than recognition of purposeful achievement, is the misguided belief that, by sporting expensive clothes bearing the logos of commercial brands, we can boost our image and stand out from the herd. However, wearing such overpriced goods doesn’t really say anything about us individually, at all. It simply advertises the product – at our expense!
By contrast, I see that you (Ben) are offering something different and original – i.e. controversial, visual art that makes us think about what it is saying. You offer a range of clear messages we can chose, to either wear, or grace our home, and which echo/amplify our personal values and beliefs.
Have a great year!