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On Epitaphs and Carpe Diem

September 8, 2014

There is no denying it: the holidays are officially over. The suitcases are unpacked, the alarm is set for 6:30, 6:40, 6:45, and 7 am, and we have regretfully eschewed coconut juice for bad coffee, swimsuits for blazers, and postcards for weekly planners. We are back to our real lives, or to quote a slightly more dramatic Thoreau, our ‘lives of quiet desperation’ in which we will work long hours, double shifts, weekends, holidays, and anniversaries at IKEA-built desks for the next forty years of what will one day be toasted as a ‘brilliant career.’


It is all part of the plan. We will become great doctors, teachers, engineers, accountants, managers and CEOs. We will build good credit history and take out mortgages to buy big homes that we will then fill with children and big screen TVs. And when we get promoted for working so hard we will take on a bigger mortgage to buy a bigger home to fit our bigger screen TVs. We will purchase health insurance, disability insurance, life insurance and a retirement plan. Yes a retirement plan, especially a retirement plan.


Our dreams can wait. Life can wait. When we retire we will have plenty of time to learn to play the saxophone, travel the world, drink champagne for breakfast and take yoga classes. We will have the rest of our lives to wake up at noon, read saucy romance novels endings first, and have two servings of pasta, extra cheese, and the chocolate fondant. We will live la dolce vita, la dolce far niente. Delicious idleness. Trust the Italians to have an expression for it.


And if we do not, if by some unfortunate chance we reach the long-anticipated sunset of our lives and find that we are alone, sick, or dead, we will be consoled knowing that our epitaphs will read:


Here lies a productive accountant who left behind a three-story house, a 401(k), and two big screen TVs.


If we cannot be happy, at least we will have been successful. We will have built something. We will have been significant. That is what really matters, right?

The United States is the fifth most competitive country in the world. Americans work 1,792 hours per year, and even though they are entitled to an average of 25 paid days off, only 57% of the workforce uses them all. In comparison, the French work 1,453 hours a year and receive 40 paid days off. And they actually use them. If you do not believe me, try finding an open boulangerie in Paris in the middle of August.


It is not that the French are too preoccupied with wine, Sartre, and sex to actually be productive. As far as their productivity goes, reports by Nationmaster, Mercer, and the World Economic Forum have all confirmed that France’s Labor Alpha (GDP/Capita/Hour Worked) actually exceeds America’s by $0.50. Apparently they do get things done… and manage to find time for un cinq-à-sept before dinner.


In America, you are what you do. Your beliefs and interests are hobbies you pick at sporadically on rainy Sunday afternoons, and your life is something you must ‘go and find’ on an exotic trip to India or Italy. In France you are the authors you read, the philosophies you adhere to, the Aznavour album you prefer, the cheese you pair your Cabernet with. What you do from nine to four on a weekday is merely the way you sustain it.


I first heard the expression carpe diem in the movie “Dead Poets Society.” Robin Williams plays one of the greatest roles of his career as an English teacher at an elite prep school for boys in 1959. In his first encounter with his young pupils, sons of society’s elite and the country’s future lawyers, physicians, and leaders, he points to photographs of previous alumni and says:


They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? - - Carpe - - hear it? - - Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.



When Williams died on the 11th of August 2014, twenty-five years after “Dead Poets Society” was released, the world hailed him with words he had quoted in the same movie: “O Captain, my captain..."


O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won.

- Walt Whitman


There it was. The most beautiful epitaph in the world.


Carpe diem. Seize the day. Every day. Not just your 25 annual paid holidays or the day you retire. Not just the day you climbed Everest or the day she said yes. Seize the day it rained and the smell of wet dirt reminded you of home. Then seize the day the sun came out. Seize the day you held hands for the first time, and the day you held them for the hundredth. Earn the right to say your ship has weather’d every rack. Carpe diem.


Oscar Wilde said that “to live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” He also said: “I don’t want to earn my living, I want to live.” It is Sunday night and my alarm is set for tomorrow morning. Perhaps I will have a successful career. Perhaps I will be rich. Perhaps I will not. Perhaps it does not matter.


When I die, I hope my epitaph reads: “She lived.” 

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