Ah, carpe diem. How many times have you heard this phrase? But have you really paid attention to what it means? It was made popular by the movie Dead Poets Society in 1990 but when I read the blog post Don’t Carpe Diem, I asked myself, “Why not? Isn’t ‘to carpe diem’ a good thing?”
Glennon Doyle is my hero. I never heard of her until I read her book, Love Warrior. I fell in love with this woman who, in my eyes, had the heart of a lion, opening herself up to the world with her real-life vulnerabilities. That is real courage to me. Her life inspired me to get real with my own fears and reservations and embrace my true self. How could I not? There’s this woman who went through alcohol and drug addiction and bulimia and she was not the slightest embarrassed to talk about it. No shame concealed her words and that is both respectable and admirable. My own life experiences are nothing compared to hers but I’ve carefully and desperately covered up my battle scars my whole life and so I finally asked myself, “Why is it so hard for me to show my wounds when they are the very things that made me who I am today?” I am stronger today than yesterday because I stared suffering down many times in the past allowing it to decide that I have become strong enough for it to leave.
One of Glennon’s most—if not the most—popular entries from her Momastery blog is Don’t carpe diem, which garnered over one million views and had been reposted and shared online countless of times. She talked about how she resented people’s well-meaning but unsolicited advice to enjoy the precious moments with her children while she struggled to “carpe fifteen minutes in a row.” And she’s got a point. You can’t really carpe diem when you’re struggling to get past the challenging moments because its very definition, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the ‘enjoyment of the pleasures of the moment without concern for the future.’ How would you feel if the dentist pulling your tooth without anesthesia tells you to carpe diem?
But here’s the disconnect: Carpe diem is derived from the Latin phrase Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero, which means pluck (or seize) the day trusting as little as possible in the future. And Merriam-Webster defines seize the day as: to do the things one wants to do when there is the chance instead of waiting for a later time. Clearly, the modern definition for carpe diem veered away from its true meaning. Here’s why:
What we want to do might not always be pleasurable
Life is not all raindrops and roses, so to be told to carpe diem—meaning to enjoy the good times—out of context is short-sighted and insensitive. There is an ebb and flow to life. We experience highs and lows even within the same day. When we’re faced with pleasurable moments, we can go ahead and carpe diem. These are the moments for which we have the natural tendency to be grateful. Big or small, these are moments when we feel love, joy, peace, and all those other wonderful feelings that come with pleasure. They are those blissful but often fleeting moments that we try to hold on to but quickly dissipate into thin air. They become memories worth remembering. They are the true, genuine carpe diem moments of our lives.
However, if ‘seize the day’ means doing the things we’d love to do today instead of waiting for the opportunity that may or may not happen tomorrow, it doesn’t always refer to things that we literally can do this very day, this very moment. They are also probably not simple or easy, and they don’t always consist of the good stuff. If what you want is to have fresh flowers in your house every week, what’s stopping you from doing it now? Carpe diem. You don’t know if you’d live through today to get them tomorrow. Do you want to get adventurous and go skydiving? Sure, why not do that today? That is not necessarily a pleasurable thing to do for many, though, so you can’t really say ‘carpe diem’ if you’re gripped with terror and almost doing it in your pants. But you can say, ‘seize the day’ because if you really want to do it, there’s no better time than now.
Sometimes, the thing that we’d want to do is something long-term, like giving up your job and starting your own business, setting up a shelter for rescued animals, or traveling the world. Whatever it is, if it involves careful planning, it would often take a whole lot of steps, require a ton of hard work and demand plenty of time and resources from you. The things that you’d do to live the life that you love might make you feel like you’re swimming upstream and struggling to keep your head above water at times. But if it’s truly want you want and you have passion and determination built into it, you are seizing the day—that’s the real definition of carpe diem.
Mindful carpe diem
So, why do we say carpe diem only when things are doing great? Why should we carpe diem only to enjoy the pleasant moments? In this day and age of mindfulness, shouldn’t we redefine the phrase and use it to mean ‘seize every single moment of our life and be present regardless of whether what we’re experiencing is good or bad’? Why can’t we, instead of cherishing only the joyful moments, learn to embrace even the painful ones?
Life is a gift even if it doesn’t come in a pretty package sometimes. When my career came to a screeching halt a few years ago, I realized that I spent decades building sandcastles. Nothing is ever permanent in this life and everything can be wiped away with one sweep of the tide. It felt like my life came crumbling down. What I didn’t know then was that I was being given an opportunity to break away from my indoctrinated life of sameness and conformity so I could peel away the layers that have prevented me from structuring my life around my own passion and dreams. I was given the opportunity to finally put on my own oxygen mask, at the time when life was almost leaving my body putting on everyone else’s.
And that’s not all. I only sought to ‘carpe only the good diems’ and dealt with the adversities in unhealthy ways. I only knew two ways to cope with life: keep everything to myself and let all the pain rot me away from the inside, or, run away by sweeping everything under the rug never to deal with them ever again. In the end, I had a closet—no, a whole house—filled with junk like a hoarder whose life had been taken over by stuff that she neither needed nor wanted. With all the time I suddenly have in my hands from unemployment, I could no longer ignore all this existential rubbish looming over me and the walls started to close in. I could no longer run away.
Many of us run on auto-pilot every day, running our routines like clockwork—get up, go to work, go home, go to bed. Rinse, lather, repeat. And whatever details fill those steps in between, it doesn’t matter. The process is still the same. Like good little creatures trained to stay on the hamster wheel, we run thinking we’re getting somewhere but we still end up in the same place. How many of us are really mindful of what is happening to us every second of the day? Whether it’s happy or sad, pleasurable or miserable, joyful or heartbreaking, do we really take the time to feel it all or do we just skim through life with our minds projected towards the future, spreading our energy into many different things? We are always holding on to a past that we could no longer get back and worrying about a future that is not yet there while failing to be in the only thing that is real—the present. Sadly, it becomes yet another part of the past that we end up regretting because we failed to live it.
When was the last time something really good happened in your life? I bet you wished it lasted forever. It’s one of our laments—all good things come to an end. And when was the last time you sat in stillness to feel through your pain and be grateful for it? Many of us don’t because, hey, it sounds a bit masochistic, doesn’t it? So, we would rather forget the bad, painful moments and drown them out with alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, or sex (or whatever your poison of choice is) and numb the pain. These are the times when we don’t seize the day even though we should.
Life is about balance. While it is important to ‘carpe the good diems,’ it is equally important to live through—not run from—the ‘bad’ ones. The ‘good’ helps us to be grateful and the ‘bad’ helps us appreciate the good even more. Fun and pleasure give us joy but pain and suffering deliver growth—sweet and sour all mixed into a special cocktail flavored by our own individual uniqueness in this world.
Carpe diem all the time
Lance Armstrong once said, “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”
Don’t quit. Seize the day. Carpe even the darkest diems because if we don’t, they will not leave for us to see the true light of day. It will be like speed-dating each and every emotional pain over and over again, stuck in a loop like Groundhog Day. So, why not throw away the timer and let it sit with us long enough so that it may say what it needs to say and move on? After all, it’s just a phase—a difficult but important phase—that is meant to elevate us to the next level of our growth. And you know what? Life tastes so much sweeter after it’s gone. That—is a real carpe diem.