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.

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