My Beef with “Carpe Diem”

A tablet depicting the Greek deity Kairos.

My Beef with “Carpe Diem”

March 15th, 2015

Here in Portland, the common reaction to all this beautiful, mid-60’s weather is decidedly ambivalent.  Of course, elation is involved: after long stretches of dense gray days, even a crack of sunlight in the early evening will get people talking.  Recently, though, nice weather has become the norm.  It’s still exciting, sure, but pervasive suspicion has taken root: does this mean we have to do a hike this weekend?

Oh yeah and there will probably be a big drought this summer.  There’s that too.

A week ago I snared myself into organizing a Sunday outdoor adventure, on account of the brilliant temperatures – and other factors.  Quick hack: never try to hang out with a girl by asking her to go hiking with you.  You’re just inviting a sticky situation.  More on that, perhaps, in a future post.

The hike was a success, but the anxiety of living up to the occasion got me thinking about one of the most abused axioms of the Western world: carpe diem.  I have a sour history with this carpe diem.  In the past, a significant other dropped the phrase to excuse her porking of a French street performer while on an extended Eurotrip with friends.  Don’t wanna go too far down that lane, but the pain and confusion was intense.  Aren’t there more innocent ways of seizing the day?  Couldn’t you have just put some coins in the cup, then used the rest to grab some cotton candy by the shore?  Did you have to fuck him?

The supposedly obvious logic my S.O. utilized is actually very convoluted, and somewhat sinister.  The way we are taught to translate carpe diem is seize the day, yes, but what does that mean to us?  We should take advantage of every opportunity a day provides, we should create more opportunities if we can, we should live every waking hour of our lives to its full potential, we should never assume there will be a tomorrow.  Because we might die in our sleep, because we might wake up paralyzed, because we might grow old and experience regret – or forgetfulness.

All good ideas to consider.  But think literally for just a moment: to seize is synonymous with to control.  We seize the day with every trip to the store, every Subway ride, every movie, each time we punch our ticket or take a breath.  We control the passage of our lives, for better or worse, through the measure of Time.

Setting our lives to a clock and a calendar ensures we don’t doddle.  We pack our days full of appointments, meetings, activities, meet-ups, classes, shifts – events that are finite.  Then, we take vacations.  Our schedules become itineraries.  We take cruises.  At some point the boat turns around, and we return home.

That is always the case, but not always – no course of events, however predictable, is that predictable.

I love Joe Posnanki’s argument (above) against the MLB’s decision to implement a countdown clock: “you don’t wear a watch to the beach, you don’t put a clock in baseball.”  I love his phrase the tyranny of time.

We all have at least one magical day in our memories when Time just didn’t really matter.  Hopefully.  For me, the beach beats Time (the alcohol helps).  So do the slopes of the West Coast, the gentle curves of the James River, the terrace restaurants of Charlottesville, the streets of Barcelona, pick-up games at the rec center near my house, overcast afternoons when 1 pm looks identical to dusk.  Often, no matter how relaxed or in-tune you may feel for those precious hours, beating Time is exhausting.  It is the best kind of exhaustion, though: it makes for a good sleep.

Are we really seizing the day when our carpe diem meters are at full tilt?  Or, is the day merely passing through us?  Or is it futile to describe joy in such limited terms?


Doug Rushkoff talks about Chronos vs. Kairos

The Greeks had two words for Time: Chronos and Kairos.  We are all too familiar with the former, the sequential, quantitative time of our daily lives (i.e. chronological time).  Kairos embodies the circumstantial, qualitative effects that create moments – or, good timing.  The startling coincidences of chronos and kairos are never so palpable as when falling in love: the reservation is at 7:30, but I’m not going to make a move until we’ve left the restaurant, had a couple drinks, and are presumably walking in one of two directions, her place or mine.

Or: it’s the top of the 5th; time for my hotdog.

A great experience is half good timing and half intuition, with luck occasionally sprinkled in. To me, carpe diemhas nothing to do with control, or even ingenuity; it should mean let the day surprise you.  The current mentality of “we must rent paddle boards because it is nice out and we might die soon” puts undue pressure on ourselves – I’m not saying don’t be proactive, rather, don’t make decisions out of fear.

And so what if you do kick the bucket before getting to taste lingonberry crepes?  Do you really think you’re going to someday be sitting on a cloud, thinking Shit, those look really good – ?  I imagine that when you die, there’s not much space for recognizing what you’ve missed out on between flashes of what you have already accomplished, the places you’ve been and been enamored with, the friends you’ve made and will miss and will soon be gone.

That terrifies me.  I am trying to practice forgiveness, to constellate everything, to lose nothing even though I realize that is impossible.  I am trying to live in the present without prejudice.  To be unselfish, to hurt no one.  To really pay attention to the objects in my room, to make sense of why I have them, why I keep certain things and throw others away.  My biggest beef with carpe diem is that most of us can barely seize onto what it means to be alive.


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