Several people I know are fond of using the term carpe diem – “seize the day.” This phrase apparently originated in 23 B.C. in the Odes, a collection of lyric poems written in Latin by the poet Horace. More than 2,000 years later, there’s a lot to be said for “carpe diem.”
In one respect it means, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “enjoyment of the pleasures of the moment without concern for the future.” An old beer commercial referred to this as “grabbing the gusto.” Another way of looking at this aligns with the adage, “You only go around once.” In other words, take advantage of the present, because quickly it will be past. You won’t get a second shot at it.
This sounds simultaneously realistic and self-serving. Terms like “look out for No. 1” and “it’s all about me” too easily fit under the carpe diem umbrella. But when we consider the remainder of Horace’s “carpe diem” declaration, it becomes a bit clearer. He added, “quam minimum credula postero,” which means, “trusting as little as possible in the next day (or, the future).”
Today we would say something like, “when opportunity knocks, for goodness sake, answer the door!” Because tomorrow, most of us have learned to our regret, might be too late.
Interestingly, the Bible speaks much about this. For instance, King Solomon wrote, “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad” (Ecclesiastes 8:15). This, combined with Isaiah 22:13 – “Let us eat and drink…for tomorrow we die!” – have formed the statement, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” While these words originally were written in Hebrew, they clearly concur with Horace’s sentiments in Latin.
The idea of seizing the day has more of an industrious context in Proverbs 20:13 – “Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare.” The book of wisdom also applies this principle to the area of generosity: “Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow’ – when you now have it with you” (Proverbs 3:28).
Carpe diem seems to be a recurring theme in the New Testament as well. During His so-called Sermon on the Mount, Jesus observed, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?... Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” He wasn’t discouraging planning, but was exhorting His hearers to trust God for each day’s provision and not to become consumed by the uncertain future, failing to appreciate the here and now in the process.
The apostle Paul also stressed seizing opportunities when they present themselves. “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:15-16). The days are “evil,” he was saying, not that they are inherently sinful but rather because if we waste time and squander opportunities, the time passes quickly and can’t be retrieved. Unlike money, we can’t “save” time in a chronological bank somewhere.
So in one sense, “carpe diem” could be understood to mean since we only have today, and tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, let’s indulge ourselves as much as possible. In other words, become hedonists. In another sense, however, “seizing the day” can inspire us to become good stewards of the time set before us, not only attending to our own needs and interests, but also looking for opportunities to be of service to others – especially God.
If there were such a thing as a time bank, one approach is to continually make withdrawals from our accounts. The other is to make regular deposits that earn dividends long into the future. As another translation of Ephesians 5:16 states, we can’t conserve time as a commodity, but we can be “redeeming the time.”
Enjoy the moment, to be sure. Have fun and delight in a new day of life. But if you have an opportunity to carry out an act of kindness, do it now. Don’t delay. If there’s an encouraging word you can offer, don’t fail to express it now. Don’t procrastinate when it’s within your power to perform good for someone in some way. Tomorrow might be too late.
Robert J. Tamasy is a veteran journalist, a former newspaper editor and magazine editor. He is presently vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., a non-profit focused on mentoring and coaching business and professional leaders. Bob has written hundreds of magazine articles, and has authored, co-authored and edited more than 15 books. These include “Tufting Legacies,” “The Heart of Mentoring,” “Business at Its Best,” and “Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart.” He edits a weekly business meditation, “Monday Manna,” which is translated into more than 20 languages and distributed via email around the world by CBMC International. He also posts regularly on two blogs, www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com, and www.bobtamasy.wordpress.com. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.