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Misquoting the Truth

Robin Williams is a liar.

At least, his character in the great movie “Dead Poet’s Society” is… or is misinformed.

Just like you. Just like me.

deadpoetsEsquire Magazine referenced a quote by novelist Nicolson Baker of how one of William’s catchphrases in the movie was mistranslated:

“Carpe diem” doesn’t mean seize the day — it means something gentler and more sensible. ‘Carpe diem’ means pluck the day. Carpe, pluck. Seize the day would be ‘cape diem’… no R. Very different piece of advice. What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day’s stem, as if it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your finger, which knows how to not crush easily crushed things — so that the day’s stalk or stem undergoes increasing tension and draws to a thinness, and a tightness, and then snaps softly away at its weakest point, perhaps leaking a little milky sap, and the flower, or the fruit, is released in your hand. Pluck the cranberry or blueberry of the day tenderly free without damaging it, is what Horace meant — pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day. Don’t freaking grab the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it.”

Not cool, Robin Williams. That’s a big deal to me. A chunk of my emerging identity as a teenager was formed because of your character’s inspirational words.

(Maybe I should give Mr. Williams a break. After all, he’s close enough. That’s all that really matters… right?)

(And it’s likely the writer’s fault. Let’s blame it on them. We bear no responsibility in having discernment with the script others have handed us.)


That’s what we’re really talking about. Why spend time actually knowing what we mean when the point we’re trying to make most of the time feels like a moving target? It’s not like we have to reference the things you tell students or take the time to do more than a surface level reading of the Bible before you teach. Just form a perception of concepts or facts, assume them to be true and share them with your students.

Or don’t.

bible_bookTake the time to use online tools like or the vast curriculum of edited and triple-checked content at to make sure you’re presenting something sound.

Or don’t.

I heard a great story in college from one of my professors about a group of knights who were baptized before they went out to battle for their king. Each knight went entirely underwater except for their swords. In their minds, they felt they could dedicate “most” of themselves to God while still maintaining the right to do whatever they wanted to do with their swords. My professor said it was a great illustration how many people become Christians and hold back their “one thing” from God – be it their wallets, entertainment, addictions and so on. I told that story for years.

Then one day I attempted to use it in a book I was writing. It seemed like I could easily discover its original reference, only I barely found fragments of stories that bore any similarity to it. I ended up actually calling my professor up and asking him about it. His reply still rings in my head.

“You caught me.”

Those three words are burned in my brain.

He went on to explain that he’d heard the story shared by someone he looked up to, but could never find the reference for it. It had such a great point, though, that he kept telling it.

deadpoets2It reminded me of another situation where I heard a Christian speaker talk about how he was at a hotel the night before his talk and all the kids kept waking him up all night by knocking on his door. It was funny and we laughed about it with him. Then, six months later, our group heard him give the same exact talk at a different conference and he played it off like it had happened the night before. I looked down the row and my students were rolling their eyes.

His talk, incidentally, was on “integrity.”

I respectfully confronted him on it after the gathering, and he told me off. Seriously… he told me off. I’ve since avoided anything he’s associated with – not because I think I’m better than he is, but because I even years later I can’t trust a word he’s saying.

Maybe that’s harsh. Or maybe we’re called to operate with greater integrity for that reason… failing to do our homework ahead of time or riffing out something false to make a point is like misquoting the truth.

We’re all tempted to do it. I’ve experienced the temptation six times in writing this very article. How about you?

  • How have you been tempted to “embellish” a stories to make your point?
  • In what ways are you teaching values you’re not willing to live out yourself?

A friend of mine told me that it took decades for him to realize the things he taught with the most passion about were the things he himself was lacking in. He summarized, “I spoke with such zeal because I was trying to get through to me, but I would never have admitted it at the time.”

So… what happens when your students pick up on it, even years down the road? What happens when something you said that defined their life is revealed to have been tossed out of your gut and full of holes?

What will your verse be?

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Misquoting the Truth

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