[an occasional series of essays about life, spirit, and the music that makes up the soundtrack of my life]
Seize the day, seize whatever you can
‘Cause life slips away just like hourglass sand.
Seize the day, pray for grace from God’s hand.
Then nothing will stand in your way…seize the day.
–singer-songwriter Carolyn Arends
The Latin phrase carpe diem, perhaps made most famous during modern times in the movie “Dead Poet’s Society,” has been around much longer, dating back to a poem by Horace (65 BC – 8 BC). It is usually expressed in English as “seize the day,” although its literal translation is perhaps closer to “pluck the day” or “pick the day,” as in gathering flowers. A nice image.
Some choose “carpe diem” as a life philosophy and live the proverbial “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die,” which indeed appears to perhaps be Horace’s original meaning. In the name of this carpe diem some get in touch with the darkest part of themselves, engaging in often self-destructive behavior. But there’s more to carpe diem than this. There’s more than one way to seize the day.
Take, for example, the characters who reside within Carolyn Arends‘ song, “Seize the Day,” who live their lives by seizing all that God is offering them. They live day to day by seizing the opportunities to do creative and charitable things. One person writes poems and novels; one works in an African clinic and “writes home to the cynics”; another is an older man, an alcoholic, who laments that he never learned what it truly means to seize day and now fears that it’s too late. Finally, there is Arends herself, who triumphantly announces that, throughout her travels as a performer, she has noticed: “Everyone’s got a dream they can follow or squander/You can do what you will with the days you are given/I’m trying to spend mine on the business of living.”
About a year after being diagnosed with my rare blood disease, I was given the opportunity to accompany my church’s youth group on a service trip to Nicaragua through an organization called “Amigos for Christ” that helps builds houses and entire communities for the poor of one of Latin America’s poorest countries. I knew we were only going for a week and I knew we wouldn’t change the world much for the people of the villages where we worked in the northern part of the country. But what I didn’t know was that – working in the shadow of mountains and volcanoes that loom so large over these villages — I would learn so clearly about the courage and fortitude of a community of people who have been dealt a pretty raw deal in life. I learned that they cared about many of the same things that any of us care about and that, when it comes right down to it, we all need food, warmth, friends and a place to call home.
I also learned that I was no longer strong enough to carry a 90-pound bag of cement very far and that I didn’t have the same amount of energy for digging ditches and lugging buckets of concrete and gravel that others had. I learned that there are wonderful young people who gladly stepped forward to take my spot on some of the tougher chores and that a ten-year-old boy from the village could shovel and carry faster than I could.
I learned that I could play with a young orphaned boy with cerebral palsy and get absolutely nothing – not even a smile – in return. I learned that I could read Spanish well enough to entertain a group of kids, even if part of the entertainment, I figured out, was them laughing at my poor Spanish skills. I learned that we could play games without having to have a winner and that people have immense pride in a home that they helped build, even if that home was smaller and simpler than my garage.
So I may not have changed their world in a meaningful way, but I know that together we made a difference and I know I changed my own life and way of thinking about the world. I know the village is just that much closer to having a new school because 40 of us worked for a week lifting and pouring and carrying. I know I made a difference because some kids in a small village in Nicaragua now believe there are people in the United States who know about them and can call them by name. I know I made a difference because I dared to take a risk and change my own world by moving outside my comfort zone.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what we do, how much we give or how far we travel to do it. What matters is that we give of ourselves whether we’re a healthy and strong 20-year-old or a 50-year-old with a rare blood disease who receives chemotherapy every three weeks.
I may be able to go back next year or I may not. That doesn’t matter. I’ve learned to seize the day like a child who picks a flower for no other reason than its beauty. We can change the world. We can help a child. We can help build a village or raise our own kids and teach them well. We can write a song or a poem or a novel. We can fight our demons, our fears and our addictions. And there’s no reason to wait. As Anne Frank once wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Don’t wait a single moment. Find your place. Focus on your strengths instead of your weaknesses. Do what you can instead of wallowing in what you cannot. Respond to the call to serve. Seize the day.