‘Carpe diem’ often crops up in my writing, and surfaces on social media daily, in different guises.
Living for the moment, or living in the moment – as you wish – can be a powerful mantra, to re-balance a frustrating moment in one’s day or, perhaps, even course correct on a more significant scale.
For many people undergoing moments of sheer crisis, using carpe diem to help consciously place value on things that are often overlooked (time with loved ones, being typically high up the list) can carry with it much deeper rooted sway, and offer up a slice of mental salvation, even if just temporarily.
Jordon Peterson emphasizes the importance of trying hard with the ‘everyday moments’ – breakfast chatter with family members, preparing a meal together, holding hands in the park. Peterson’s advice seems to match that of Annie Dillard, when she famously said: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
All of this we’ve heard before. And, maybe, the art of drawing from these sentiments, when required, is one of those past-times we will never quite fully master.
Last Boxing Day, during a brief staycation in the city, I met an 80 year old Chinese-born-American-raised, ex-financier, named Frank. “Another day above ground,” was his greeting to me, as we locked gazes in the hotel’s swimming pool.
Frank, it transpired, had retired at my age, and appears to have spent the last 35 years trying to help encourage aspiring professionals to do the opposite to what he managed to achieve.
Slow down, would be Frank’s counsel, appreciate not the materialistic assets for which you might strive but, instead, savour the smaller things in life.
“You can’t take the Porsche with you when you’ve gone,” he advised me (this was prior to him learning that I was in development and that, not only do I not know a Porsche from a Peugeot, but that I’ll never be in the market for one, unless it came in a matchbox set).
Of course, Frank is right – arguably, he is also well placed to share this wisdom with hindsight, having already made squillions of dollars working for the Qatari Royal Family as a stock broker in the 1980s.
Nonetheless, he’s right and, if we wind forward to the last week, day, or even the last hour of our own life, then 99% of the things that we spend time thinking about now (work, finances, relationships, assets, the future etc) do certainly become redundant, as we clear our minds, instead, to reflect, appreciate and to resolve.
True, some people will only be at peace, when they are at an end of life stage, if their reflections on what they have accomplished are measured by career achievements. In which case, work, assets and money are worthy and mutually reinforcing targets.
For others, measurement using these types of criteria are less critical. Oscar Wilde himself believed it to be a “curse” if someone had a predefined career path, as that would mean they weren’t afforded the luxury of waking up each day with “wings of independence”.
I’m a huge fan of Wilde, always ready to ingest his colourful observations: tasty mind-candy to momentarily sweeten my day.
However. I think “seizing the day” can be bigger than this, I think there’s more to it, and more required, than the short-term sugar rush of that particular attribute of carpe diem.
I had surgery on Valentine’s Day this year. My first time going into an operating theatre on a gurney, luminous bug-eyed lights craning over me, and four pairs of masked faces jostling around my feet with clipboards, as the plastic tube into my hand administered a calming anesthetic.
For 20 seconds, lying there, waiting to be knocked out, all of a sudden I decided to hastily reflect on my life, the brain whirring through all possible options, as fast as a 5G search engine.
I panicked. The anesthetic was circulating in my veins. I breathed. Within only a few seconds of manic emotional wrenching, I then paused and simply pictured Issy and the girls, held their warm smiles in freeze-frame and concluded (rather pathetically, but with as much profoundness as my soon to be sleeping brain could muster) that “I’d had a good life, and done quite well.”
Awake a few hours later, my Achilles tendon stitched back together, I felt a bit embarrassed at this rather botched attempt at spiritual reconciliation.
Who was I projecting my “last” thoughts to? Also, if, rationally, I actually thought there might be a chance I’d not ever wake from the surgery, why was I even undergoing this procedure in the first place?
All fruitless questions to pursue. The more important dilemma to untangle (I should have realised at the time) was, logistically, how was I going to stop to buy valentine’s flowers for my wife on the way home from the hospital, whilst on crutches, and feeling sleepy? A purchase which, for the archives, let it be recorded, I did manage to successfully accomplish.
A few day’s passed and I thought over the experience again, and became quite moved by my resolve at searching, in those seconds on the gurney, for an ultimate answer (particularly, given I’d no idea what the question was I was posing myself).
In that moment before the drugs kicked in, what I had felt was all of my senses in tune with this one active effort: to make sense of it all. The seconds that passed, as I was running a scan over my life, trying to spit out a suitable summary, were super intense, and had felt visceral and unfamiliar.
Three and a half months later and, on the verge of leaving Vietnam’s borders once more this month, and spending time with family and friends we’ve not seen since we were married in Galle in January 2020, what carpe diem feels like for me, today, is a much more rounded appreciation of the meaning of ‘awesome’.
As a colloquialism, awesome has been sold on the cheap. It dawned on me that “being inspired by an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration or fear” (the actual meaning of the word ‘awesome’) could be attributed to every second of one’s life.
For each second that passes, we change, we morph, we learn, we evolve. Only very, very slightly, each second, but change is happening, whether we like it or not.
And, yet, the only second that counts, the only second that can illicit awe, is the one that is happening at that moment.
Now, with what I’m about to finish on, I may, simply and idly, be lumping Peterson, Dillard and Wilde all into one mash-up, attempting to craft an ultimate carpe diem medley – having my cake and eating it, if you will. However, given I’m hopelessly devoted to some kind of pursuit in life that enjoys mixing different flavours of philosophy together, in order to make the most delicious bite (although I’m never satisfied with the final taste) then these last lines may well be nonsense, or just plain obvious…
Isn’t the truth of the matter this: when someone uses the phrase “the best is yet to come,” that should be called out as hogwash?
The “best” anything we’ve ever done, or experienced, is happening to us right now.
The best meal we’ve ever eaten is the one in our mouths when we are eating it. The best discussion we’ve ever had is the one in full flow right now (whether we’re having it with someone else, or with ourselves).
With each fresh breath of oxygen into our lungs, and flush of blood round our hearts, we are experiencing the awe of existence, the miracle of life.
Whether on our own, or in the company of others, whether feeling elated or feeling remorseful, or out of kilter in some way – the awe remains, it doesn’t ever go anywhere but lies, instead, under the surface of our lives, intuitively hidden away most of the time. Until it is needed.
The best isn’t yet to come, the best is right now. And it always will be.