All my life I have heard (as no doubt you have too) the admonition to enjoy life while you can. Carpe Diem – “Seize the Day” – it’s a hackneyed refrain and the wisdom, while easily appreciated even if not readily engaged, is as often ignored. When however I recently read a twist on the aphorism, a short exchange between a father and his son – “Be careful. Life is short.” – I took especial notice. What’s unique about this warning is its conjunction with a precaution instead of its stand-alone promotion of carefree gusto.
Initially I was uncertain how one should “be careful” in these circumstances. I am guessing that the paternal author sought to circumscribe the reluctance or procrastination which now and then attends embracing the philosophy. While it is preposterous to imagine an intentional obstacle to the enjoyment of life, we perhaps unwittingly do so. Most of us acknowledge the necessity to work for a living and be productive. This tolerable qualification is however often advanced at the expense of current pleasure. It is possible that we feel the need to “earn it” before we “enjoy it”, a metaphor of general application in other situations as well.
A moment’s reflection upon that eligibility reveals the very weakness which the caution is probably meant to avoid – delay. In that sense, the warning to be careful is an important add-on; namely, that the implementation of life’s enjoyment mustn’t be put off for any reason. The term “careful” is not of course proscriptive; it doesn’t outlaw other behaviour. Being careful implies protection from loss. Like all anticipatory conduct its effectiveness is uncertain but at least it serves to remind us that enjoying life is not something that happens in a vacuum or just eventually. Referring to the other aspect of the advice – “Life is short” – we are further counselled to recall that there is no assured time limit or “best before” date. It’s just short. Period. That too encourages prompt attention and serves to dispel a fallacious prospect of predictable amortization. We mustn’t assume we’ll get to it one day or when we have a better or legitimate reason for doing so. Or when we’ve solved all our other problems.
Carpe is the second-person singular present active imperative of carpō “pick or pluck” used by Horace to mean “enjoy, seize, use, make use of”. Diem is the accusative case of the noun dies “day”. A more literal translation of “carpe diem” would thus be “pluck the day [as it is ripe]”—that is, enjoy the moment.
An element of Carpe Diem which is not stressed is the encouragement not only to enjoy life itself but also to enjoy oneself. I realize that may sound to be the same thing but to me it highlights the distinction between the appreciation of life’s bounty and one’s personal treasures, both indescribable gifts. Though there are some who apparently relish themselves to a fault, most of us view our daily performance as less than ideal and that unmitigated approval of our ineffable talent is unwarranted. This is likely true but it doesn’t address what I think is the penetrating truth that in order to live for the day we must first be more accepting of ourselves, less critical, less demanding. This is not a carte blanche for inappropriate behaviour but rather motivation to let down one’s guard and welcome what we know in our heart will not significantly change and to take things as they are, no matter that life may be clouded by inhibition, disappointment, health or financial concerns. This liberation (and elevation) contributes meaningfully to the enjoyment of life on every level. If nothing else, it removes an impediment and that must accordingly contribute to the fluidity of life’s appreciation. It permits us to cast off the moorings.
Germane to almost any consideration of “Life is short” is the issue of doing something productive. It is after all the issue of productivity which frequently stands in the way of “enjoying” life where people fear lapsing into a redundant vernacular if they are no longer needed or required. Neither does it necessarily resolve the dilemma if one throws oneself into a mix of volunteer activity, gardening, further education or whatever. The object is not to camouflage the condition (and certainly not to drown it in alcohol) but rather to interpret it and taste it. There is after all some work involved here! Being careful requires prudence. We should also confess what is sometimes our boundless passion for money and status, having to prove ourselves over and over again. In the end none of it matters, nobody’s listening and nobody cares. How long we put off that recognition is important. And we should be open to trying different expressions which may be incompatible with a worn-out lifetime tradition. Tuning into our inner voice may assist especially if we employ some of that creativity which we imagine we have in such abundance.
“Be careful. Life is short.“