Carpe diem, seize the day, gets tossed around as if it’s actually good advice. It’s a popular and ancient maxim that no longer holds as much wisdom and truth as we suppose. The phrase comes from the Roman poet Horace’s Book 1 of Odes. The longer and more literal line reads: “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one.” To pluck a moment or day communicates a gentler sense of being present and focused than the more urgent and violent interpretation to seize. Seizing the day is an act of desperation. It’s an injunction tograb the day as if it’s a snake slithering off, escaping into the weeds. As if speed, strength, efficiency, and decisiveness are the main keys to a meaningful life. They are not. What that mindset leads to, if it’s even possible to live by it, is to fatally miss the huge percentage of mysterious and beautiful life that is outside our grasp but not outside our vision. To tell the truth, the maxim seize the day is fatally flawed advice.
To Seize a Day is to Miss It
In an oblique reference to carpe diem Frederick Buechner, talking about his father’s suicide in his memoir The Sacred Journey, writes, “The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.”1 In other words, that same seizing that secures one moment closes us off “to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still.”2
Rather Inhabit the Day
What if it’s better to Incolunt diem: inhabit the day? Inhabiting the day is opening our hands, minds, and hearts to take in all the day holds for us.
Inhabit simply means to live in. But it is a deeper concept than that. It’s far more than living at an address mail comes to.
Inhabiting the day is to realize there are many things in life you can’t do for yourself. Gather grace for example. Most of life we cannot fit in our finite hands. Inhabiting the day is sitting in the midst of the light and dark of a day and receiving from God the hope, silence, solace, questions, doubts, faith, words, touches, and mystery that constantly surrounds us. It’s openness.
Buechner again, “[T]he one thing a clenched fist cannot do is accept.”3 I would submit that seizing the day amounts to a clenched mind, heart, and soul. I don’t want to strangle life but to live it, experience it.
God’s Grip Is Larger than Ours
Inhabiting the day is the opposite of seizing the day. I understand many of us miss moments and opportunities. We may miss a brown trout lipping our caddis fly because we are slapping at pesky mosquitoes. Or we wake long after the silver and golden sunrise. Or fail to see a bull elk ghosting through the aspens because we are checking our heart rates and steps on our watches. But days (or opportunities) don’t slip away. They all leave a residue. But we don’t notice. We are convinced that failing to seize these moments is to lose them. But God’s hands are infinitely larger than ours. What God has for us will come, trials or triumphs and all they promise us. We need no seizing and grasping. We can trust God to parade in front of all that he holds for us over and again.
Inhabiting Pain Rather than Resisting It
This focus on inhabiting the day came to me in the midst of pain. I’ve been ill with long COVID for over a year now. The fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and dizziness all worsen with physical, emotional, social, and/or intellectual exertion and preclude seizing anything, especially an entire day. Fighting through a bad day can turn it into a bad week or month.
I gave up on resisting the pain. Instead I now start the day sitting on my back porch watching the early morning light filter through the leaves of the trees surrounding our yard. I’m usually clear in the mornings so I write in my journal, read the Psalms, watch for tiny drops of beauty, and pray.* One dizzy, fatigued morning the Holy Spirit seemed to say, Inhabit this moment, see, hear, experience the beauty you miss while grappling (seizing) with healing. Let hope and healing come through the cracks like the light slips through the tree leaves.
Inhabiting Is Jesus’ Way
I can no longer rush off and seize the day. If I do I seize up like a motor without oil. Like you, I used to be able to run on that small drop of motor oil still left in my oil pan. But it’s an illusion. The wear and tear on us even then is a real and present danger. The stress we live under is a major culprit in most of our ailments and breakdowns. It may simply take longer for your heart to seize.
I believe this is the meaning of Jesus’ contradictory metaphor “My yoke is easy my burden is light.” Jesus lived this in his relationship with the Father and Spirit. They inhabited one another. So Jesus does not mean easy in the sense of no difficulty but rather an openness to his flow and partnership. Being yoked with Jesus changes reality. Taking on Jesus’ yoke is inhabiting his reality, his truth, his life, his way. Seize the day is fatally flawed advice. But inhabiting Jesus’ way is life.
*Out of inhabiting these moments I wrote a poem I called Listen Quieter. It’s about the healing I’ve received by letting go.Ask in the comments and I’ll send it to you.
Things in life that call for inhabiting and not seizing:
The first fresh chill of fall,
The scent of just baked chocolate chip cookies,
Your children’s laughter,
Finely wrought lyrics or poetry,
A well told story,
You can read more about similar ideas here. When Silence Speaks Louder Freedom Than Fireworks: A Fourth Of July Sunday Psalm and Is There More You Can Do When You Can’t Do Enough?
You can also stay up to date with my long COVID journey here.
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