My students just finished a unit about the forces or personal philosophies that drive us to make the choices we make in life. In essence, we explored the Roman notion of carpe diem.
Some students interpreted Horace’s words with an urgency, much as the students in Dead Poets Society did when teacher John Keating entreated them to make “[their] lives extraordinary.” Waiting for things to happen, constantly working towards the next externally defined success? These were not in the purview of some of my students’ essays. They urged their readers to move forward, to take the leaps and bounds that would drive them to heights and achievements that the less courageous could only dream of.
Other authors read Horace differently, something similar to the way John Spencer describes “The Epic Life” in his ingenious video. In this interpretation, every moment of life is extraordinary, but most of us miss it because we’re too busy looking to and working towards the future, to the futures planned by, or in some cases, for us. (We miss it because we’re too busy, as John Lennon might say, “riding on the merry-go-round.”) Billy Collins’ irony doused poem “Carpe Diem” offers a similar interpretation, countering the clichéd “drain the cup of life to the dregs” notion of carpe diem with a more contemplative and relaxed interpretation of life.
In the end, there’s no wrong way to seize the day. Adrenaline junkies abound and burn brightly in the big skies of life. At the same time, John Lennon, who gives us the title to this post, suggests something different. An observant, patient, determined life…perhaps a “conscious life.” Or it might be “the life of the artist,” a life in the pursuit of a happiness that doesn’t come at the expense of, to use a phrase from the 60s, “selling out.”
I link here to several of my student’s blogs and their thoughts about this notion of carpe diem. But I also recommend this recent post by Charles Chu on Medium. His interpretation of Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson’s path in life actually started me thinking about this post, and offers a better and deeper examination of this aesthetic. I urge you to read that, too.
Carpe Diem: Marked Absent — about the lack of initiative and spark in the school system
Carpe Diem: Sprouting Against Conformity — daring to forge one’s own life
From Seized by the Day to Seizing the Day— (a tumblr…you might need one to read it)
A Poet’s Guide to Carpe Diem— Poetry and seizing the day.