Live life for life, not for today

By Phil Grech |

When I was still tattooing in south Florida, people were getting carpe diem tattoos like people buy tacos from Taco Bell. That analogy is bad because it implies we specialized in carpe diem tattoos, but you get the idea: lots of carpe diem tattoos getting pumped out on a regular basis.

That brings me into a thought I’ve had recently: we all want to know how to live our lives and sadly, we spend so much of our lives trying to figure that out.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to tell you how to live your life. I have no idea how you should. I do, however, fear that you may have the same worry as me, that you might wait until it is too late to figure out how to live it, that you may waste most of it worrying about how to live instead of silencing your worries so you can live.

Many people don’t realize they have wasted their lives until they are old enough to start collecting social security. Unlucky for you and me, social security probably will not be around by the time we are old enough to cash in on what we are currently paying for, which will be all the worse if we have simultaneously realized we have wasted a significant portion of our lives. Maybe it’s because we were too afraid. Maybe it’s because we did what other people told us to do. Countless possibilities, but they all lead to the same sad conclusion: a wasted life.

In place of a wasted life, some people embrace the idea of carpe diem and then tattoo it on their bodies. What does “carpe diem” even mean? A literal translation from Latin is “live for today,” but even then, what does that mean? “Live for today” leaves a lot open for interpretation. The last girl I remember getting that tattoo “lived for today” by going out with her friends and getting trashed all the time. That sounds like the quickest way to be nowhere ten years from now.

So, what is the best way to live? Does “carpe diem” suggest we should live as though today were our last day on earth? If so, how am I going to make my rent and car payments next month after I spent the night buying shots of 18-year-old Jameson for the entire bar with my last paycheck?

The question remains: how should we live?

I received a bit of insight into that recently. For a guy who likes to talk a lot, I have a few rules about when it’s time to stop talking: getting into a conversation with a person significantly older than you is one of them. It’s a great time to shut up and listen. It’s a great way to figure out your own “carpe diem” without the tattoo.

While a lot of that conversation with a person older than you may be spent listening to incoherent ramblings about the good times of yesteryear, a lot of that conversation can be spent absorbing wisdom. Asking a person what he or she regrets most about their life, or what he or she considers their most important decision, can help you figure out which direction you should go in.

I have a friend who, at the age of 20, received a false diagnosis, that if correct, would have meant his death would have arrived in just a few months. Even though the diagnosis was wrong, it was enough to urge him to live his life differently. Realizing that he could have died so soon prompted him, urged him, to do anything but waste it.

My friend is now in his sixties. He sells health insurance. He is mild-mannered, calm, cool, collected. He speaks well. He is confident and self-assured, but not cocky or egotistical. I sit down and listen to him speak about his life. His stories of living in Japan for eleven years after receiving his false diagnosis are enough to at least get me to get out of my chair and make the trip to the grocery store I have been postponing for the past four days.

I had known him for months but never really listened to him talk about his life. One day, we sat down and talked. I shut my mouth, listened and heard another story that put any “carpe diem” tattoo I had seen to shame.

After his time spent in Japan, he traveled to 19 countries. During one of his visits, he was standing on the corner of a street in a Middle Eastern country that is not widely discussed or visited (hence, I forgot the name of the country). From the corner of his eye, he noticed a man walking around the corner pulling a cart. The cart he pulled carried cans and various metal debris. After rounding the corner, he continued walking, pulling the cart until he reached my friend then stopped and turned to face him. The man was emaciated, with rags for clothes, holes for teeth, and cheeks sunken in like quicksand.

It was not until he got closer that he really understood the man’s condition. An up-close look at the man revealed more than poverty and famine. His body was covered in sores oozing puss. His body wore scratches, cuts, and scrapes that showed no signs of healing. The description my friend gave of this man made him seem like he was hours away from death. It is without a doubt that the man I am writing about today is now dead.

Finally, the emaciated man spoke to my friend. He asked a question my friend was not expecting to hear.

“It’s a beautiful day today, isn’t it,” he gently asked, smiling and looking my friend in his eyes.

“Yes,” my friend agreed.

“Well, have a nice day,” he sincerely replied. The man walked away, pulling his cart, carrying no baggage.

I would like to say that since I heard that story, I have altered my path in life toward a happier, more fulfilling course, but I haven’t. I’m not a huge fan of happy endings, so I’m not going to give you one just to make us all happy.

Since hearing this story, I have only become more aware of my path in life. The bill collectors still call. The rats still find a way in through the walls. I still fall behind on some portion of work while trying to catch up on another. Life still has its downs, those inescapable weights that prevent you from moving on until you let them fall away. In short, life still has its way of sucking.

Living for today should not mean you enter some Epicurean lifestyle because you could die tomorrow. It’s not realistic. I’m sure a lot of people have “carpe diem” tattooed on themselves for their own, perhaps very unique and intellectual reasons, but a lot really just want to go out and get wasted and call that “carpe diem.”

Knowing that I can’t always remember to appreciate life like the man in the above story, I still remind myself of the story and it helps me forget about the bill collectors, the rats refusing to pay rent in my walls, and the ever increasing pile of work, because sometimes, it’s just a really nice day outside. Instead of “carpe diem,” a wiser tattoo might be “vitae vitam,” or in English, “Live life for life.”

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