The aerobic exaggeration of ‘carpe diem’


“Seize the day!”

It sounds like a motto we can all probably relate to. Its an exhortation to kinetic activity. It describes a standard for our behavior. Its a personal moral imperative. And it makes sense, to a certain extent. It tells us: “Don’t squander the day. Don’t let it pass you by. Don’t look back with regret and wish you’d done it differently…. Opportunity knocks! Don’t let it slip through your fingers.

But a thing looks different at first glance and in drawing out its implications and further consequences. Instructions to ‘seize’ anything can also seem a bit too possessive, a bit too ‘graspy’. If we put our moral virtue in the activity of ‘seizing’ one has to wonder how far the slippery slope will carry us….

Seizing the day is such a self propelled activity that so thoroughly stands or falls on its rewards that we can easily imagine that the more we are seizing the better we are doing it. Its an aggressive attitude (What would the difference have been if we were told to ‘cradle the day’?). There is nothing passive about seizing. Its a struggle, not merely to hold on, but to capture and to confiscate. There is no room for surrender. For might have beens. For taking a back seat. For just witnessing. Seize it now. Seize it cleanly. And don’t look back. Seize it or be damned….

And rather than simply receiving the day that is offered us we must actively TAKE it. And not just any old way. We must take what we want when we want it. Its ours to take, after all…

Seize the day! Make it ours! The walls are undefended! Storm the castle and put its livestock to the sword. Accept no prisoners. Scatter their ashes to the wind. Suck the marrow from their bones….. Seizing the day is a belief that victims are a part of the natural order. And that might makes right. The power to seize things. Its Darwinian selection. The quickest to act claims the spoils. Snooze you lose. The early bird gets the worm…. Its never seize your own junk, but seize the assets from someone else. Its never seize up thine own beating heart, but pillage where ye may….

We bought the ticket when we entered this world, and rather than sitting in the comfy chairs with the rest of the sheep in the audience its time to get up on stage. We are in this thing called ‘life’ and its time we discovered that it is a full contact event, not a spectator sport…. Its not for the faint of heart. Take your chances or get off the can. Don’t waste your turn. The meek will inherit only the dust of our passing…..

Seizing the day is a kinetic extravagance. A carnival of opportunity. Where do we wish it to take us? Everything depends on our own powers of motion. We are at the center of the universe and we need to see how it can serve us. ‘The world is our oyster’. As much of it as we can get our fingers on. We need to seize it before it passes us by.

And an aerobic and acquisitive call to arms is the method of Pirates not Saints. At its roots ‘carpe diem’ betrays a profound and self-centered anarchy of the soul…. To seize the day is not simply to embrace life. Its not a call to nurture it. Its not a plea to shelter the weak and feed the hungry. The harder you seize it the more you crush it. And the fragile flowers turn to paste. Everything within our grasping reach gets throttled into servitude. If I can reach it its mine. And the dreams of others are strangled by its greedy fingers….

Everyday is your Birthday. And all the presents are for you to claim.
Every night is your prom. And the music is being played just for you.
Pick the golden fruit.
Pluck the brass ring.
Don’t let others stand between you and the prize.
Trample anyone who gets in your way.
Squeeze all the juices out.
Lick the bowl clean.
Never give up.
Winner takes all.
King of the heap.
You are either on top or you are not.
Nowhere else but first place matters.
There are only winners and losers.
Make hay while the sun is shinning.
Get all you can while the getting’s good.
“Do what thou wilt” is the whole of the law.
Life is a frontier riot, and it waits for no one.
The only question is who will clean out the shelves first.
Who will seize the day first?
So fill your pockets with booty.
Fill your life with plunder.
Seize the day. Everyday.


Maybe it makes sense to do a bit less ‘seizing’…..

Rather than storming the castle we can in good conscience also sometimes surrender it. Rather than only taking from life we can still maintain our dignity and also sometimes give up the things of value. Its not always about how much we can add to our own hoard. Its not always about what life owes us. We can also receive with humility rather than entitlement. The world is not set out only as tribute to our powers of grasping. Its not always a matter of imperial conquest and piracy….. ‘Seizing the day’ sounds so much like the self absorbed morality of petty children and sufferers of mid-life crises…..

The opposite of seizing the day might be a recognition of the ecology of our lives. That we are a part, not the center. That we are also there to serve, not only to be served. That rather than seizing for ourselves we can make things possible for others. We can sacrifice and surrender our own ambitions. Instead of ‘me first’ it can and often should be ‘we first’…… Any good parent or true friend knows these values.

And rather than only something kinetic and aerobic, life can also be contemplative and compassionate. Rather than a Dionysian cavorting through the mansions of the gods it can be a humble acceptance of our own extraordinary ordinariness. Looking inward rather than outward. Meditation rather than manipulation. Acquiescence rather than acquisitiveness….. What are the treasures of our own soul? Rather than simply seizing more, perhaps we can turn to a better understanding of what we already have. Perhaps our success needs to be measured less by the capacity of our bank vault and more by the capacity of our soul….

Seizing and pillaging leaves only smoking ruins behind and the tears and curses of those who got in our way. We must learn to also be builders rather than destroyers, planters rather than harvesters. If the art of living is simply what we can get away with, then how much does this extend to what we can give away? If its only about my own hands grasping how much does this extend to what I can claim for others? Rather than taking advantage of situations and other people we must give advantage to them and construct situations for them. If its only about living the present as though it were our last day on earth how much do we build for the future and for our children’s children’s children? If we are so occupied with seizing the day do we have time to stop and consider others? Our sense of community? What we leave behind? What we decline? What we leave for others to have and to hold…..?

Perhaps before we get too carried away with the exuberance of seizing the day we should also learn to contemplate the day. Study it. Marvel at the role we play, not just for our own good, but for the good of others. Contemplate our own great good fortune. How we are only here through the compassion and sacrifice of others. Our parents. Our friends…. And not be so obsessed with wringing as much as we can, and more than we already have.

Seizing, it turns out, is often a poisoned fruit. What we win by this grasping agenda may be here today, but gone tomorrow….. Slicing the pie only to our own advantage is not likely to win us any favors or future consideration. Our own progress only at the cost of trampling others will hardly endear us to them. Squeezing blood from stones is not a long term strategy. Planting only the charred husks of corpses will not feed us in the end….

So perhaps it makes sense to broaden our view, and seize tomorrow as well. Seize it as payment to the others in our lives. For their roles in the ecology of our lives. For their own lives’ sake. Seize it because its our responsibility to care for, in trust to those who come after. Nurture it for the benefit of all. Seize it with the delicate sensitivity of an artist’s hands. Not crushing, but sheltering from the storm. Breathing life by owning to the obligation we have to its sustenance and prosperity. Tiptoe around the day. Enjoy the day! And by doing so, learn to surrender to it at the same time….. Slow down. Accept the day. Know peace….

What goes around comes around….

Are we closer to Saints or to Pirates?


Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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5 Responses to The aerobic exaggeration of ‘carpe diem’

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  3. Juana says:

    This was an interesting take on one of the mantras of my youth, Carter. Carpe Diem. I first heard the phrase in the voice of Robin Williams, in the Dead Poets Society, and adopted it as an important truth for my 16-year-old self. I never thought about Carpe Diem as the moral imperative to take advantage of the day to the detriment of others, but, ironically, it’s meaning for me was closer to what the second part of your essay suggests as the opposite of Seizing the Day. Carpe Diem meant to me to be present, to live with mindfulness and intention, to contemplate your hours and make the best of them… for you AND others. Seizing the day would imply for me to make good use my brain (do something interesting today) my hands (make something interesting), my body (exercise, eat well), my humanity (do interesting things with/for others, have fun, and be kind and compassionate). So, it worked for me as a moral imperative of the Buddhist kind rather than of the Wall Street kind. It was also a reminder not to be lazy (which came very naturally for me at that age).

    It is interesting that 2-3 words can have such divergent meanings. I guess now that I am not 16, I don’t care for short truisms or slogans, but more for actions and intentions, which never completely fit in 2 or 3 words.

    I agree with you: Your take on Carpe Diem is truly horrifying. Cradle your day!

    • I do like how you interpreted it in your youth, but the wording always seemed to indicate much more testosterone and self-serving interest to my mind. Every other use of the word ‘seize’ I can think of is aggressive and at someone else’s expense. So even seizing good things can come out as a bad proposition…..

      I much prefer the gentler and more nurturing verbs. “Cradle the day” sounds about right to me 🙂

  4. Pingback: Repost: The aerobic exaggeration of ‘Carpe Diem’ | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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