Why we need to reclaim Carpe Diem

Carpe Diem has been hijacked, says Viv Groskop. But more than ever we need to relearn how to seize the day

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By Viv Groskop on

It has been almost thirty years since the release of Dead Poets’ Society and Robin Williams’ famous instruction: “Carpe diem: Seize the day.” In those three decades self-help literature has all but overtaken regular literature in sales and we know probably way too much about seizing the day and being our best selves, as we pepper our social media feeds with the empty hashtag #YOLO. “Carpe diem” has gone from being a special mantra to the sort of thing you might read on the side of a mug, second only to the mind-numbing pointlessness of “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Like all clichés, though, “carpe diem” contains a basic truth. As Robin Williams says in the film: “We are food for worms... Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Now a rather wonderful new book is trying to seize back the noble art of day-seizing. Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day (Unbound) argues that in our age of distraction we’ve never been further away from feeling alive in the moment. “Carpe diem has been hijacked and reduced to the instant hit of one-click online shopping,” says philosopher Roman Krznaric.

Instead of living each day as if it were your last, why not live it as if it were your first?

His advice? Channel your inner Maya Angelou by doing as many unlikely things as you can manage. Nightclub dancer, waitress, singer, actress, theatre director, political organiser for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, journalist and newspaper editor, TV script writer... When Maya Angelou saw an opportunity, she grabbed it, regardless of whether she was qualified for it or whether it was a good fit with the rest of her (non-existent) CV. “We might all join the ranks of those who are just winging it, and release more of our experimentalist side on the world,” says Krznaric. (Unfortunately I think the day is too short to learn how to pronounce his name.)

And instead of living each day as if it were your last, why not live it as if it were your first? This was Steve Jobs’ mantra. He looked in the mirror every morning and asked himself, "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?Whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” The art of living each day as if it were your first means seeing the world with the eyes of a child. Remember what it felt like to see snow for the first time? Or find out that giraffes are a real thing and not just in books? Find something that gives you a similar feeling. (For me the flipside of this also works. If I encounter things that make me wish I were dead, I avoid them. The first few notes of Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl came on the radio this morning. I immediately turned it off. Carpe diem!)

Another great tip? Plan for there to be no plan. “How can we seize the day when the diary is so full and the To Do list unending?” Although Krznaric acknowledges that we can’t all live the way they do in Brazil – where someone once asked him for a drink and he said, “No, sorry, I have to go and give a lecture.” His friend replied: “So what? Start the lecture late. No-one will mind.” – he suggests blocking off time for doing nothing or being spontaneous. “Scheduling in spontaneity may appear artificial, but it’s an effective strategy in a world where endless commitments easily leave us gasping for free time that might never arrive.” Stop waiting for time to arrive. The worms will come before time does.


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