Carpe Diem

Over the last year, deaths, dooms and chronic, debilitating conditions have overtaken people close to me in unprecedented profusion. In previous decades such banes had come rarely and one at a time, this year in a flood. Some were the nearly inevitable results of age, others wholly shocking.

We spend most of our lives half-consciously averting our eyes from our eventual fates. Mortality is something we want to understand in only the driest, most intellectualized sense – we keep it at arm’s length. Internalization of its meaning comes later, if at all.

Men, in particular, tend to get into a groove in their twenties, then more or less ignore changes in their bodies for the next forty years or so. Every year we tell ourselves that we could be just as strong and healthy as we were last year – or fitter, even – if we just had the opportunity and inclination to make it so.  With very rare exceptions, we expect good health in ourselves, our friends and families. Life will just go on much as it has, we think.

Our professional lives, which are central to how most us men, at least, think of our identities, follow a similar arc: we start working in our twenties and are hard at it for the same four decades, rarely lifting our heads to see what comes after.

As you know, I am at the back end of the decades in which the patterns of our lives support the illusion of permanence. I know it too now.

***

Carpe diem – seize the day – means something different to me today than it did decades ago. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” commanded us to savor life’s earthly delights. Fair enough, but I increasingly focus on the implications of the second half of that sentence.

And what are those implications? How should we seize the day? To what end?

By savoring earthly delights both simple and refined, as commanded? Absolutely. We should eat, drink and be merry every bit as lustily – albeit perhaps with more reflection – than other living creatures do. We would be fools – and ingrates – not to.

Beyond the simple enjoyment of life’s sensational delights, though, our memories and the foreknowledge of our own mortality give us a wider context in which to consider our own behaviors; that wider context consists of other people.  

The larger project of humanity’s well-being ennobles us. We care about what will happen to others – both now and after we are gone. That we care about others is our saving grace. It gives us purpose and enables us to contemplate the void without despair.

***

The woes that have beset me this year don’t leave me feeling sorry for myself. I have no excuses for self-pity – quite the contrary, I am richly blessed – but I do have deeply-felt regrets: kindnesses I might have bestowed on those who are suffering or gone, things we could have accomplished together, experiences we could have shared.

I’ll try to make fewer such mistakes in the future.

I hope to live for several more decades and to use each day well. I want to eat, drink and be merry, yes, but also to be kind to those whose lives I touch and to accomplish things of lasting value to others. If there is a God, I want him to smile when I meet him, and I’m pretty sure that can only happen if I’ve given to the world more than I’ve taken from it – so I had better not waste the time I have.

M.H. Johnston

3 comments to Carpe Diem

  • KH  says:

    Beautifully written Mark. Could be a Yom Kippur sermon.

  • Deirdre Barry  says:

    Beautiful.

  • Paul Rogen  says:

    Thank you Mark. I also appreciated your warmth and comments when we were together recently. I wish you well in every way, especially as a man facing similar issues.

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