Carpe Diem. This may be the most recognizable Latin phrase among those of us who don’t have a clue about Latin.
Carpe Diem. Twenty-five years ago it was a very hip thing. Sports stars were saying it, people got tattooed with the phrase, t-shirts were made, it was all around. Latin, for a time, was cool. This was all due to the prominent place the phrase took in the movie Dead Poets Society. I was reminded of this as the memorials for Robin Williams flooded social media. It brought back memories for me of the movie, of Williams’ performance, and of being inspired by the phrase.
The phrase comes from the Roman poet Horace. Evidently, it can be literally translated as “pluck the day” or “enjoy the day”. Of course, we’ve all come to know it as the aphorism: Seize the Day.
In 1989, when Dead Poets Society came out, I was in my early twenties with a lifetime of possibilities ahead of me. Looking back from where I’m at now, about eighteen months from turning fifty, I only had a vague notion of what “seizing the day” was all about. The idea thrilled me with its potential but I really didn’t know what it would look like in my actual life. I think I was guilty of envisioning this concept in big terms, world-changing terms, making-your-life-count terms. In reality, the phrase has built into it the idea of living in the present, in the moment, in the day-to-day. In Horace’s original poem, there is a reminder of mortality built into the phrase; as in, “Enjoy today because you are not guaranteed a tomorrow.”
In my early twenties, the concept of mortality surrounding Carpe Diem didn’t sink in as much as it does for me now. After Robin Williams’ death, the concept is sinking in even more. Like so many people, the news of his passing deeply saddened me. It wasn’t just because he was a talented and gifted performer; it was the combination of the nature of his death, at his own hand, with the image I’ve always had of Robin Williams as someone who was able to “suck out all the marrow of life”, to use Henry David Thoreau’s phrase. He always seemed so fully alive; so much so, in fact, that he often seemed to have enough life to spread around to millions of people. Really, that is exactly what he did through his career – pumped life into all of us through laughter and inspiration.
His death hit so many of us so hard because he seemed to embody Carpe Diem.
Yet as we consider the body of work he left behind, it becomes increasingly obvious, in his stand-up comedy and in his TV and movie roles, that there was always a theme of mortality combined with his own sense of Seizing the Day. In his own way, he was helping us understand the importance of living in the moment, enjoying the present, because the future is unwritten. Perhaps this is exactly what defines the best comedians and entertainers: they remind us to really live, not in some obscure future that we cannot see or understand, but today – this day, this moment.
With that in mind, and as my own tribute to the ultimate Wise Fool, I want to share with you what it means to me to Carpe Diem, or, if you will, Carpe Diem-to-Diem: Seizing the day-to-day. I don’t profess to be an expert but I do know what defines those days for me; my best days when I’ve grabbed the day with both hands, when I finish my day and don’t fear an uncertain future because the present was so full of real life.
What it means to me to seize the day-to-day:
Create Something… Anything! Our days can so often be filled with the truly mundane, with maintenance, with the minutia of just existing. So much of life is getting through it, often slogging through it. For me, taking some time to create something, anything, in my day brings me back to the present moment; in fact, it suspends time in a good way. I draw, paint, play music, write, take photos – I am very thankful for the outlets I have in my day. But this can also mean working in the garden, making supper, composing an awesome tweet, shooting a fun video to share, preparing a speech, developing an idea, crafting something, solving a problem – the list is really as varied as the personalities and abilities of all of us.
Many people don’t think they are creative. As a Christian, I believe we are all created in the image of the Creator. Among other things this means the obvious: You’ve been created to create. To create something in your day helps you become more fully who you are at a very intrinsic level. Also, you’re tapping into something that can inspire, encourage and give life to people around you. In other words, your creativity can help someone else seize the day-to-day.
Love Somebody… Anybody! I am often struck by how dehumanizing and depersonalizing a day can be. Being in a big crowd can be the loneliest place on earth. I don’t think the opposite of loving someone is hating them; I believe the opposite is ignoring them, treating them like they do not exist in your time and space. Ironically, by cutting ourselves off from others as we so often do, we are destroying our ability to seize the day-to-day.
The opportunities to love somebody, anybody, on any given day are many. For some of us, we have a spouse or children who are the obvious targets for our affection. But we all have many other people in our lives who are there to love. Some are easier to love than others, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean you cannot commit to give love a chance. I am amazed at what a smile from a stranger does to my mood, to my day; kindness from a bus driver instead of rudeness; a co-worker who just wants to shoot the breeze with me or share a joke; a fun or considerate text, e-mail, or post to my Facebook page.
In the end, it doesn’t take much to feel loved. It follows, then, that it doesn’t take much to love. Kindness may be the single most under-appreciated attitude in life. In my experience, the Beatles lyric is very true: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” To be loved and to love is a guaranteed way to seize the day-to-day.
Laugh, Have Fun… Repeat. Have you ever noticed that the people who make others laugh, who create fun, are the most attractive and the people you miss the most when they’re not around? That’s because they are people who help us live in the moment; they help infuse the moment with joy. This was perhaps Robin Williams’ greatest gift. But you don’t have to be a natural-born comedian or fun-loving extrovert to create a day to enjoy.
It is ironic that brooding on a unknown future can keep us from experiencing happiness in the present. This is a common affliction. I see it every day. In fact, I am guilty of it often. The truth is that nothing can rip the heart out of a chance at a joyful day like an unhealthy obsession with what-might-be, with worry. And this damage is not only done to ourselves but to those around us.
But laughter, fun – talk about your under-appreciated qualities of life! I feel I have truly seized the day-to-day when I have allowed myself the freedom to laugh, to smile, to tease someone, to make someone else laugh, to lighten someone else’s load. Really, when we allow ourselves some joy in life, we become joy-givers to others. Joy is so infectious it can become downright pandemic if we let it work its course. Maybe it’s time to let laughter and fun go viral in our lives.
So Carpe Diem-to-Diem. What gives purpose and meaning to our lives is not what will be in the indistinct future but what is, right here and right now, in the present. How do we make our lives extraordinary? By daily embracing the extraordinary and remembering one simple thing: Today is a gift.
Rest in Peace, Robin.