One concept that I like to address in my classes is the legendary carpe diem. Commonly interpreted as “seize the day,” meaning to go out and live life to the fullest. You’ve all heard of it, if from no other source than Dead Poets’ Society, a movie about a “maverick” – read “irresponsible” – teacher who inspires his students to do things that he knows perfectly well will get them into serious trouble with the school, yet does nothing to warn them of this fact. But that’s a subject for another day.
In my own class I take a very different approach, and I like to explain to my students what their high school teachers couldn’t (or wouldn’t). Specifically, that it’s not “seize the day” so much as “seize the girl.” The carpe diem movement in poetry ran on the theme of “We could be dead tomorrow, so let’s have sex now before it’s too late.” Ah, how little things have changed.
But in its more abstract form, carpe diem does have merit. Indeed, it is best expressed in a line from one of the most well-known carpe diem poems, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”:
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity
I am in mind of this because I recently ran across another “inspirational” slogan. Perhaps you’ve heard this one as well: “Dream like you’ll live forever. Live like you’ll die tomorrow.” Inspiring, right? Maybe. The problem is, those two concepts are utterly incompatible. You can’t both live forever and die tomorrow. So we are faced with a choice. Which is a better philosophy? Spending your life dreaming? Or living? Any reasonable person would surely say the latter.
Live life to the fullest. Seize the day. Make the most of the time you have. But what about dreaming? There’s nothing wrong with dreaming, but it can’t interfere with living. What this really means is simple: don’t waste the life you have on endeavors with some ambiguous fruition that may never come. Think twice before undertaking a project that will take you years. Or decades. Then think a third time. In the end, will it matter? Probably not. If you live for tomorrow, what will you have missed today? Focus on where you are now, on what you have now.
Because, in the end, dreams are just that: dreams. You only get one life. And you really only have it right now, this minute. Make that what counts.