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Seize the Day?

Don't live today as if tomorrow were your last. Live today as if tomorrow will be your last if it is not better than today.

Written by johnleemk on 4:20:37 pm May 14, 2007.

One of my favourite movies is Dead Poets Society, a story of a teacher who inspires his students to carpe diem — seize the day. This sentiment is normally epitomised in glurges as "live each day as if tomorrow were your last".

After all, "seize the day" is not sufficiently poignant or emotional as the latter sentence, which is quite suitable for "inspirational" email forwards. But the problem with this corruption is that despite being more verbose — being three times longer than "seize the day" and almost five times longer than carpe diem — it is far more ambiguous.

Essentially, it can be translated as "take care of today because tomorrow will take care of itself" or "do as you will today, because there is no tomorrow". These hedonistic sentiments are not exactly good aphorisms to live your life by.

This corruption of "seize the day" is basically a licence to do what you wish, come what may. It is a sermon to live life as an epicurean would, thinking only of today and never of tomorrow.

After all, what exactly would you do if you knew tomorrow you would die? Oh sure, we would all go sentimental with our friends and family, but after that, I'm quite sure we would all indulge ourselves to the maximum.

When you have this kind of thinking, who wants to diet? Who wants to save? Who wants to prepare for the future at all? We live for today — we eat as we like, we spend as we like.

This is in effect a near-total opposite of what "seize the day" actually means. As Robin Williams says in Dead Poets Society, "Seize the day, boys! Make your lives extraordinary!"

The point of seizing the day is to seize the opportunities life has placed before you today. Don't assume they will last forever; don't assume you'll always have the chance to do something.

Of course, if you actually delve into it, you could conceivably take this to support the hedonism of "live each day as if tomorrow were your last" — but the actual sentiments "seize the day" conjures up are quite different. It insists that we be the best we can be — not enjoy the most we can enjoy, but do the best job possible.

In essence, that is what "living life to the fullest" is all about. You don't live life to the fullest by saying "Damn the rest of my life, I'll do what I like today" — you live life to the fullest by doing everything you can to make your life better.

Being the cynic that I am, I of course will now take the opportunity to point out that like any other ironclad rule, following this "seize the day" principle has its flaws. Not every opportunity is ripe to be picked; the same opportunity, approached at different times, can yield vastly different results.

But the general rule — that you should seize the opportunities you have today, rather than wait for another day — is normally sound. It should not be unfairly corrupted to serve short-termists and their hedonistic epicurean philosophies.