YOLO, So Carpe Diem

yawp-walt-whitmanOne of my favorite movies is Dead Poets Society. In fact, in High School and slightly thereafter, some friends and I had our own version (of the group, not the movie) called Demented Sparrows.

We sought to live poetically. Not that we rhymed everything or spoke in iambic pentameter. We believed in the power of ideas and words as their trojan horses. We believed that there could be beauty in the mundane and that good writing flowed most easily from the pursuit of life in all its forms. We would have adventures and get together to write, read and share poetry. We even published a few ‘zines of poetry that we gave away. Maybe I’ll write more about all of that some other time.

The only thing many people remember about Dead Poets Society (besides a literary Patch Adams) is the phrase “carpe diem.” If not, watch this scene:

Many people know and even claim to live by the phrase “Carpe Diem” or “seize the day.” What’s interesting to me is that different generations often try to put their own spin on such passed-along sentiments. Culture works in part when we appropriate traditions and update them.

And now the Tumblr generation has tried to make Carpe Diem their own, re-branding it at YOLO. I confess that my finger is no longer on the popular culture pulse and I had to do some Urban Dictionary sleuthing the first time I saw “YOLO”. In case you’re like I was and are not familiar with the phrase, it stands for “You Only Live Once.”

One might be tempted to view YOLO and Carpe Diem as synonyms. In fact, this seems to be the sentiment held by many who cry YOLO while taking unnecessary risk. After all, both reflect on the fleeting nature of life and how life should then be lived. But the proof is in the pudding and the Tumblr generation is not eating the same pudding as people who understand “Carpe Diem.” Simply put, the two phrases do not mean the same thing. In fact, they seem to work against one another while both playing off of the same sentiment.

All one has to do is look at the popular usage of each phrase to see that they actually work against one another. YOLO is most widely used as an excuse to do stupid and/or dangerous things without thinking through their consequences. It is often used as an excuse to flout rules or expectations, to sneak into a bar instead of doing your homework. It is sometimes used apologetically to explain negative consequences that could have (should have) been avoided. It’s a brush-off of consequences.

Carpe Diem, on the other hand, is the constant reminder that death is around the corner, so “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” This phrase is often used in association with giving extra effort to something, to setting one’s self apart from the crowd, to finding meaning in a fleeting life.

Carpe Diem seeks to make the most of life while YOLO flits it away.

I’m not saying we should live timid lives. Quite the opposite. But the difference between Carpe Diem and YOLO is that YOLO flagrantly disregards the value of life for the sake of an immediate experience while Carpe Diem makes the most of the moment precisely because life is valuable. Carpe Diem forces us to wrestle with the value of every decision while YOLO devalues our decision-making process.

While all of this may sound like semantics, with eight kids, it is something I think quite a bit about. I want my kids to make the most of life. I want them to be adventurers. I want to go out of their way to make a difference.

Yes, we only live once. So we should seize the day in the pursuit of love, of beauty, of adventure. We only live once so seize the day while you still can.


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