Updated: Sep 22, 2020
We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘carpe diem’, it’s hard not to go into any high street shop without seeing the Latin aphorism branded on the side of bread boxes or tea towels. It can be effective in awakening the reader to their lust for life but also on it’s own it can seem a little empty. However, carpe diem was actually a shortening of the full sentence which read ‘carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero’, which translates as ‘seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow’.
This fact was actually pointed out to me by one of my best friends Oli, who felt so passionately about this omission that he wanted to get ‘quam minimum credula postero’ tattooed on his body. He died before he ever got the chance but his life encapsulated the sentiment of that phrase in it’s entirety. Through losing loved ones himself he knew that life could be tragically short and so was compelled to live fully, and although his life was shorter than others, in many respects it was far fuller. This awareness of the fleeting nature of life allowed him to truly seize each moment. As a culture we seem incapable of facing the reality of death head on. What makes the living of today so important is the knowledge that our days are finite, the burning desire to ‘seize the day’ is motivated by the awareness that it may be our last. However, instead of acknowledging this fact we remove the reminder of death and with it remove the driving motivator in this call to live. Cultures of the past (and other countries today) were well aware of this fact. The term ‘memento mori’ (remember that you must die) has been commonly used throughout history and at one time it was fashionable for priests to keep a human skull on their desk to serve as a reminder of their own mortality.
To me the reminder of our own mortality is important for a couple of reasons. One because it makes us present, if we can remember that time is fleeting whilst engaging in our interactions with others and with the world around us, then we can be brought back into the moment to fully appreciate what we are experiencing right now rather than obsessing over future planning or mulling over the past. Also, it helps us to avoid despair or hubris. If we become too inflated by our ego it reminds us that no matter how big an empire we build we will all still one day die. Equally, if we feel shame or despair at our actions it shows us that in the grand scheme of things nothing we do is as permanent as it seems, whilst also reminding us that we do not have forever to dwell on it, we have limited time to do good.
Ultimately on the surface this may seem like a sombre phrase but to me it is a beautiful and essential part of the duality of life, without the promise of death the desire to live loses all meaning. When looking back through the long line of ancestors whose survival and procreation led to our existence, it is incredible that we exist at all. One missed encounter or one early death could have halted the ancestral line. So the mere fact that we are here now is an incredible blessing, one made all the more magical by the knowledge that it has an ending. If time stretched out into eternity, each day would fail to take on much meaning but our own mortality is a force that produces a burning within us to create, love and do good. That’s why I believe it’s important to remember that these opportunities are finite.