Ethics Quote of the Day: “Emily Webb”

“Goodbye to clocks ticking — and my butternut tree! And Mama’s sunflowers — and food and coffee — and new-ironed dresses and hot baths — and sleeping and waking up! Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”

—- Emily Webb, the heroine of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 drama “Our Town,” in her climactic speech in Act 3, cutting short the one day in her life she has been permitted to relive after dying in childbirth.

Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder

It’s a gorgeous spring Sunday in Northern Virginia, and by happenstance Garrison Keillor chose today’s installment of his “Prairie Home Companion” to allude to Emily’s famous,  heart-breaking speech at the end of “Our Town.” The speech is so familiar to many of us that we tend to forget how perfect and right it is, one of those remarkable, inexplicable times when a writer manages to express the important thought that is beyond expression.

Emily’s speech reminds us that the ultimate unethical act is wasting the remarkable opportunity that is a human life, and, at the same time, failing to appreciate the wonder that passes by our senses in the process. The answer to Emily’s question is, of course, no—nobody, not poets, not geniuses, not heroes nor saints—realize life every minute. Wilder’s, and Emily’s immortal words, however, spur us to try.

On this beautiful day, in this beautiful country, Emily’s speech is an excellent catalyst for calm, resolve, perspective, and hope.



8 thoughts on “Ethics Quote of the Day: “Emily Webb”

  1. Thanks. As someone who has had enough downs in their life, I am contemplating getting a pet dog or cat. I realize a big reason they ground me is they are so ever present in the moment. I guess babies are similar. When I used to get into over analyzing the petty issues, like a rat in a round cage, I’d go see the little pup in the next room…pet it and forget it. Additionally, i suppose without all that beautiful suffering we do, there would be a giant hole left in the world of art.

  2. Thanks for this. It reminds me of one of my pet peeves: People complaining about being bored. Back when I had an active Facebook account, I’d end up getting unfriended by people who complained of boredom because I would usually respond with something along the lines of, “That’s amazing! You’ve somehow managed to read every book, see every movie, hear every song, learn every language and meet every person on the planet! Oh, you haven’t done these things? Then HOW ON EARTH could you possibly be bored?”

    When I was about six years old, I complained of being bored and my grandmother responded with, “Only boring people get bored.” I’ve never been bored since.

    There’s so much to offer in this world that in theory, it should be difficult to take life for granted. Yet people somehow manage..

    • Growing up, being bored was almost a shameful thing. As kids, we definitely got the message that to be bored was your own fault. But I also grew up in a time when you were sent outside to play and it was fully expected that you would not return until supper. I completely agree with your grandmother.

  3. Brooking…cats make wonderful companions.
    There are many in shelters just waiting for a home and they are forever grateful to you for giving them one. 🙂

  4. Thanks for the reminder… Life itself is a wonderous thing, and between politics and the Internet (and all its permutations) we often forget that every day is an opportunity… to live, to love, and to reflect on the wonder of nature and of life itself. I am embarrassed that, as a literature scholar and literary buff, that I often allow myself to let this approach to life — so superbly put by many authors — pass me by, getting so caught up in the daily vicissitudes of life in 21st century America that the mere fact of life on our planet is a gift… from God, the great spaghetti-monster, or whomever. It is still a gift.

  5. You lost me at “Our Town” . That play will put me to sleep faster then anything else. Its a beautifully written wonderful play but 9 times out of 10 its delivered as one big monotone snooze fest.

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