Seize the Day, Part 1
The entire craze for purpose today raises important questions: What does it say of how we see the meaning of life, and how are we to make the most of it? Os Guinness addresses these questions in his new book, Carpe Diem Redeemed. Read part 1 of 3 below.
Taken from Carpe Diem Redeemed by Os Guinness. ©2019 by Os Guinness. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL, 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com. Image: ©2019 [Jens Bonnke] c/o theispot.com.
This article is part 1 of 3. Read part 2 here.
I HAVE OFTEN TOLD THE STORY of the time I was returning from Brussels to London on the Eurostar Express. As the train approached St. Pancras Station in central London, it went past some dilapidated Victorian buildings beside the track. Many of them were covered with a splattered mess of graffiti, slogans, and protest symbols. But one wall carried a message that was clearly readable as the train slowed before entering the station.
You only live once, and it doesn’t last.
So live it up. Drink it down.
Laugh it off. Burn it at both ends.
You can’t take it with you. You only live once.
Those words are of course a summary of the short-lived YOLO philosophy (“You Only Live Once”). The idea swept many university and college campuses briefly as a much-popularized version of what was taken to be Epicurus’s famous maxim, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” But regardless of the distortion of Epicurus, it’s probable that few devotees of YOLO were aware of one original formulation that set out the philosophy with a sharp sting in its tail: “You only live once—if then.”
“You only live once—if then.”
That blunt version of the YOLO philosophy, and indeed the entire craze for purpose today—books, seminars, conferences, life coaches, slogans, and all—raises important questions: What does it say of how we see the meaning of life, and how we are to make the most of it? From our dawning consciousness of the world as infants to our waking every day to a new day of life and a world outside us that we can see, hear, and touch, we are always and only at the very center of our lives and therefore at the center of existence as we know it. It is therefore a jolt, a fundamental jolt, to realize how that perspective carries an illusion.
We are simply not at the center of existence. We will not always be here, and the universe will go on without us as if we had never been here. Most people never hear of us even while we are here, and all too soon it will be as if we had never been here at all. For almost all but the tiniest handful of us, the day will come when there is no trace of us in the living memory of the earth.
Thus for all our sense of significance, whether modest or inflated, we are all, as the Greeks said, “mortals.” In the words of a Roman epitaph, “As I, so you, so everyone.” Or as the Bible states simply, “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19). Human life is hemmed in by three words and the reality they speak of: mortality, brevity, fragility—the last because all that shows we are alive and separates us from death is a mere breath, and one day a single breath will be our last. Who, if they have ever seen a great performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear, can ever forget the anguish of the old king holding his dead daughter Cordelia in his arms, as if he could put a mirror to her lips and see if there was even the slightest vapor on the glass? “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all?”1
One single breath? And a finite number of breaths that in a finite number of days could all be counted? Does the shortness of it all leave you dizzy? Does the truth that we are “born to live to die” give life the sense of Milan Kundera’s “unbearable lightness of being”? Are we to conclude with the writer of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccles 1:2)? Life is so short, and it can as easily be wasted as lived to the full, so what does it all add up to? How do we make the most of such fleeting days on
earth? What does such a microsecond life say of our understanding of life, meaning, purpose, identity, truth, and of notions such as right and wrong? What does it say of how we understand what lies behind all of these things—our views of the universe and of time, history, reality, and whether there is a God, gods, or nothing behind it all? And what does it say of how we are to understand the ideal of an “examined life,” a “life worth living,” and how we live well in our brief stay on earth?
If, as people commonly say today, our brief lives are simply “the dash between the two dates on our gravestones,” what hope is there of investing that brief dash with significance? There are truths that no one can answer for us. We must each face them alone. Our own mortality is one of them. How challenging to stand and ask as Tolstoy asked himself, “What will come of my entire life? . . . Is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me?”2 And how terrible to come close to the end of life and have to say with Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, “What if my whole life has been wrong?”3
In short, our human challenge is to make the most of our time on earth and to know how to do it. Time and space are the warp and woof of the reality in which we live our brief lives as humans, but they are different. When Alexander the Great asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, the flinty old philosopher answered famously, “Stand out of my light!” We can occupy part of space exclusively and block someone else’s access, but no one occupies time exclusively. Time is our “commons,” the open and shared ground for all who are alive at any moment to enjoy together.
More importantly, we humans can conquer space, and we do so easily and routinely with our bulldozers, our cranes, our smart phones, our jets, and all the shiny achievements of our techno-logical civilization. But we cannot conquer time. Time does not lie still before us like space, for it is within us as well as around us, and it is never stationary. It moves, and in one direction only—onwards and unstoppable. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, philosopher and rabbi, “Man transcends space, and time transcends man.”4
Time does not lie still before us like space, for it is within us as well as around us, and it is never stationary. It moves, and in one direction only—onwards and unstoppable.
Importantly too, the comparative ease of our conquest of the world of physical space disguises a vital fact: our conquests of space are always at the expense of using up time. We are spending our time even if we twiddle our thumbs and do nothing, and energetic activism does not solve the problem. We can build “bigger and bigger barns” or bigger and bigger empires, whether political or commercial, but there is always a day or a night when life ends, and then, as Jesus of Nazareth warned, “your soul is required of you” (Lk 12:20). Which means that the time we have spent in doing anything is the real cost and the proper key to assessing whether we have gained or lost and the effort has been worthwhile. However effortless-seeming our accomplishments, we always pay for them at the expense of our greatest challenge and the most insoluble mystery of our lives—time. “What does it profit a man,” Jesus also declared, “to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36).
Look around the world today at all our high-striding billionaires, multibillionaires, and soon-to-be trillionaires. They may be titans of finance or technology or political power, but face-to-face with time they are the same little people, the same mortals we all are. Whatever their plans and their dreams for the future, whatever their intentions and their resolutions, whatever their energy and their resources, death waits for them at the end as for us all, and death is therefore truly humanity’s “final enemy,” whatever the hopes of the life-extension dreamers. Heroes or villains, saints or sinners, world-famous or unknown, we all die in the end. All human life is time bound: it always has been, and it always will be. Our basic condition is what the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy called “time-torn.”5
Yet the challenge of time is sharper still for us as modern people. Karl Marx famously described workers in the Industrial Revolution as “wage slaves,” and quite apart from the thought of death at the end of life, many of us in our advanced modern world know well that we are as much “time slaves” as some are “wage slaves” and “debt slaves.” Life in the instant world of advanced modernity is fired at us point blank. And since we are encouraged to realize that life will speed up further as things are made even more “efficient,” does it mean that we are living too slowly and inefficiently now? We have less control over our time than ever, which is the real index of slavery. We are under the gun as never before—running, running, running and never catching up. (Most of us, we are told, are “triple screen-gazers” and check our smart phones more than one hundred times a day, which is only one aspect of our constant state of partial attention and always feeling behind.)
Yet for all our frustrations and complaints about the “rat race,” we often do not give much thought to all that lies behind it and how we can begin to counter it. Which means we are all the more vulnerable to the efficiency experts and to new fashions that turn out to be false answers, and to some that make the problem even worse. And there is always the thought that we do not want to admit: If our own technologies have made us into time slaves, we have done it to ourselves.
How then are we to think about the challenge of time today, and how are we to live more freely under the pressures of modern fast life? There is no escape from being time bound and time torn, for that is part and parcel of our being human. But is there an answer to the nightmare of time slavery in the here and now, and therefore to seeing time well and making the most of life?
“Just Do It” to “Just Buy It”
Roman Krznaric’s best-selling Carpe Diem Regained captures the modern dilemma superbly, and my own title is a deliberate variation on his.6 He has set out to explore the present status of the famous two-word maxim carpe diem, “seize the day,” from the Roman poet Horace’s celebrated Ode 11.
As Krznaric sees it, the motto has never been more popular, and it is now interpreted variously as a matter of five main approaches to time: grasping an opportunity, going for pleasure, practicing presence, developing spontaneity, and pursuing a certain style of politics. The distinguished English actress Judi Dench had the motto tattooed on her wrist on her eighty-first birthday, and Hollywood captured the philosophy brilliantly in the film Dead Poets Society. Robin Williams played a teacher in a New England school, urging his students in poetry class: “We are food for worms, lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is going to stop breathing, grow old and die. . . . [Therefore] Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”7
At the same time, Krznaric argues, the passionate desire to not miss out on life has been pulled off course by a welter of current distortions and look-alikes. Seizing the day, making the most of the moment and living each moment to the fullest, has been hijacked and redirected to such false ends as consumerism, hedonism, workaholism, mindfulness, and irresponsibility. Nike’s “Just do it,” he says, has morphed into “Just buy it,” “Just plan it,” and “Just watch it.”
Seizing the day, making the most of the moment and living each moment to the fullest, has been hijacked and redirected to such false ends as consumerism, hedonism, workaholism, mindfulness, and irresponsibility.
Krznaric’s book is a fascinating tour of the contemporary horizon concerning responses to time in the modern world. It shines a searching light on all sorts of current follies and pitfalls in handling time and therefore on the challenge of living a “good life” and an “examined life” today. Yet with the selective attention typical of so many of today’s thinkers, his own answer overlooks the perspective of the most radical view of time that once shaped the Western world and that shines out today like a lighthouse in the storm that is advanced modern life—the unique perspective of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. He admits that his omission is deliberate and his short-sightedness is self-induced. “I don’t believe there is any ultimate meaning of life, whether written in scripture, the stars or our DNA. If it’s meaning we seek, we can—and must—create it for ourselves.”8
Create it for ourselves? Like Bertrand Russell, with the great English philosopher’s view of the Greek giant Atlas who carried his own world on his own shoulders, Krznaric does not believe there is any meaning of life that is “inherent” in the universe or “out there,” to be discovered. If anyone desires meaning today, they will have to create it by themselves and carry it by themselves. Nothing else is conceivable. By definition, the atheists’ or agnostics’ search for the meaning of time and life can never amount to more than a Do-it-Yourself endeavor.
The truth is that the DIY secularist view of time is a major and widely regarded answer, but it is only one answer among the world’s many answers and a minority answer at that. Yet when it comes to a challenge as profound as time, all answers should be considered and none should merely be asserted as if self-evident or taken on trust simply because the speaker is an eminent philosopher or a best-selling author. As always, contrast is the mother of clarity, and the differences between the answers make a difference—and make a difference not only for individuals but also for whole societies and civilizations.
The truth is that the DIY secularist view of time is a major and widely regarded answer, but it is only one answer among the world’s many answers and a minority answer at that.
This book sets out the contours of the very different answer that Krznaric overlooks—the Bible’s. Unfortunately, this Jewish and Christian perspective came to be blindly accepted in the West with too few questions asked, and it is now blindly rejected in the West with too few questions asked. Over against the earlier attitude, I am not asking for any special treatment, and over against the current attitude, all I would seek is a fair hearing for a view that is distinctive, radical, and magnificently consequential for each of us as individuals as well as for the future of humanity. For surely it is undeniable that a wise understanding and a positive response to time and history is as vital to the future of humanity as it is to each one of us in our daily lives.
Carpe diem, “seize the day,” or make the most of life is a magnificent ideal, but how are we to achieve it? How are we to make it more than a slogan and a cliché fit only for a college student’s poster? How are we to take it beyond its three most obvious pit-falls, seizing the day in a selfish or a short-term manner, or cultivating a style of spontaneity that is only a silly form of randomness? And how are we to do it under the unrelenting pressures of modern fast life? Science, by its very nature, can give us explanations for things, but it cannot provide the meaning we are asking for. Philosophy, after three thousand years, has sharpened and sharpened our thinking, but it has brought us no nearer to answers. For all the skepticism of today, and the refusal to think too deeply, the wisdom of the ages still holds true that we must look to ultimate beliefs.
For all the skepticism of today, and the refusal to think too deeply, the wisdom of the ages still holds true that we must look to ultimate beliefs.
My argument here is simple, straightforward, and a sure way forward. Seizing the day and making the most of life must not be flaunted in the face of impossibility or absurdity; the ideal requires a vision of life capable of fulfilling it. And that, I will argue, can best be found within an ultimate belief, a faith, a relationship, a trust that does justice to the deepest meaning of time, of history, and human significance and enterprise.
In short, seizing the day, making the most of life and understanding the meaning of life are inseparable. All three require that if we are to master time, we must come to know the author of time and the meaning of time and come to know the part he calls us to play in his grand story, which makes the deepest overall sense of time and history. And even more, wonder of wonders, we are then invited to live lives that align our individual hopes and destinies with the very purpose and destiny of the universe itself.
Seizing the day, making the most of life and understanding the meaning of life are inseparable.
NINETEEN FORTY-ONE, THE YEAR I happened to be born, has been described as the true midnight hour of the twentieth century. The lights of freedom and democracy appeared to be flickering, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan seemed invincible, and the diabolical malevolence of “the final solution” was germinating in the dark recesses of Nazi minds. Seventeen million had been killed in the brutal Japanese invasion of China that was launched four years earlier, and where our family lived near Kaifeng, the ancient capital of the Song dynasty, five million people—including my two brothers—died in a terrible famine caused by an army of locusts and the heartless response of General Chiang Kai-shek to his own people. Later in 1949, living in Nanjing, the ancient capital of the magnificent Ming dynasty and later of Nationalist China, my parents and I witnessed the final victory of Lin Bao and the Red Army and the triumph of Chairman Mao and the People’s Republic of China.
In short, the horizon of my early years was filled to over-flowing with rumors, brutality, crisis, natural disaster, war, death, revolution, terror, and history on a grand scale. Human life seemed cheap, every day was a challenge to survive, and we who did survive seemed to ricochet from day to day and from place to place, with as little sense of control as pinballs in a cheap arcade machine.
I can’t say I thought about such weighty matters at the time. I was eight at the climax of the communist revolution when Mao’s reign of terror began, but my father—who was fearless—was like an anchor in the storm around us. I certainly thought about such questions later. My brothers had died. Why not me? How can we say we each matter when we are dwarfed by the cosmos, dwarfed by time, dwarfed by events, and dwarfed even by most of the things that are the backdrop of our own lives, such as the size of the state and the number of our fellow humans on the earth at the same time as we are? For some people, of course, the answer is that we don’t matter. Once upon a time, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “In some isolated corner of the cosmos, poured out shimmeringly into unaccountable solar systems, there was once a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most arrogant and hypocritical minute of ‘world history’: but it was only a minute. After nature drew a few breaths, the star grew still with cold, and the clever animals had to die.”9
Many people today would agree with Nietzsche, but from the Jewish and Christian perspective he was wrong, badly wrong. Nothing could be farther from the Genesis account of creation and the Bible’s evaluation of time, history, and our little individual lives. Do we each have value? Is there any meaning to our lives, even in times of conflict and catastrophe? Yes, yes, yes, Jews and Christians cry out together like a trumpet blast. We may not see it now, but there is meaning to life and to the covenantal view of time and history as a whole. There is meaning in each life because we are each significant, history is singular, so we play our part in a larger picture and a longer story whose ending will make sense of it all when it is unveiled.
There is meaning in each life because we are each significant, history is singular, so we play our part in a larger picture and a longer story whose ending will make sense of it all when it is unveiled.
Nietzsche did not believe in God, and to his credit he refused to trust in any view of life that favored a human perspective for which there was no foundation without God. Life for him had to be seen against the whole of life and the vastness of the cosmos without God and without inherent meaning. There is certainly a paradox in the Bible’s view. We may be “creatures of dust,” small in size, absurdly dwarfed by history and outnumbered by our fellow creatures, but we are made in the image of God, and “breathed into by the Spirit of God.” So we each have momentous worth and significance, and our little lives make glorious sense—even if it is not all always apparent to us within the limited horizon of the here and now.
Perhaps because those turbulent early years, I have always had a passion to make sense of what was happening around me. Like a dog with oversensitive ears, I have always felt the presence and passing of time acutely. Most people, it seems, fit comfortably into their own times like a hand in a glove and find it strange to think of living in any other time—though of course many feel themselves out of step with their times as they grow older. In his last years, C. S. Lewis famously described himself as a “dinosaur.” Doubtless the commonsense realism of those who just live and rarely give a thought to time is enviable in many ways.
There are those who wish they had been born in completely different times and somehow always feel out of joint in their own time. The great Austrian statesman Prince Metternich, who lived from 1773 to 1859, felt this deeply. “My life fell into a disgusting historical period. I was born either much too early or much too late; now I actually feel good for nothing. At an earlier period I would have enjoyed life, in a future period I could have been truly constructive; today I spend my life propping up decaying buildings. I ought to have been born in 1900, thus having before me the twentieth century.”10 Even the apostle Paul himself wrote that he felt like “a man born out of due time” (1 Cor 15:8).
I have never had the unthinking contentment of the first group or the unsettled restlessness of the second, though for me the blend of time and the times has grown to be one of the major themes in life. I have had an electric sense of “the moment” almost as far back as I can remember, and have constantly wondered what it all must mean. We only live once, and time is short, so time throws down a gauntlet at each moment. Do we rise to meet it and seize the moment or not? Life’s challenge, as the British king Cymbeline says to his lords in Shakespeare’s romance when he hears that the Romans have landed, is to “meet the time as it seeks us.”11 Or in the famous lines of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, there are tides in the affairs of men that must be “taken at the flood.”12
Os Guinness (DPhil, Oxford) is a social critic and member of the RZIM speaking team. This article appears in Just Thinking Magazine issue 27.4
Want a copy of Carpe Diem Redeemed? Purchase it here.
1William Shakespeare, King Lear, act 5, scene 3.
2Leo Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings (London: Penguin, 1987), 35.
3Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Jerusalem: Minerva, 2018), 91.
4Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005), 98.
5Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Penguin, 2006).
6Roman Krznaric, Carpe Diem Regained (London: Unbound, 2018).
7John Keating, Dead Poets Society, quoted in Krznaric, Carpe Diem Regained, 13.
8Krznaric, Carpe Diem Regained, 10.
9Friedrich Nietzsche, unpublished essay “On Truth and Lie in a Morally-Disengaged Sense,” in Robert Wicks, Nietzsche (Oxford: OneWorld Books, 2002).
10Klemens von Metternich, Aus Metternichs nachgelassenen Papieren, ed. Prince Richard Metternich-Wineburg (Vienna: Wilhelm Braumüller, 1881), 3.348 (no. 442).
11William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, act 4, scene 3.
12William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 4, scene 3.
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