Way back in 23 BCE, the Roman poet Horace exhorted people to carpe diem. Those two words have been translated by schoolchildren and repeated in pop culture for so long that we all know carpe diem means “seize the day.” Except, it doesn’t. Not exactly.
Seizing is much more sudden and forceful than my days appreciate. I don’t feel called upon to fling myself from bed and stomp through the day taking giant bites of ever more amazing experiences. Yet we live in a culture that admires people who grab what they can, chew it up, and reach for more. As Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society tells his students, “Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
Many of us aren’t quite that driven.
Thankfully, what Horace more likely meant by the word carpe is “pick or pluck.” Those words come across quite differently to me. To pick the day, I’d reach for it as I would a peach on a tree, knowing the ripest fruit nearly falls off at the touch. To pluck the day I’d grasp it gently as I would a daisy, nipping it off low on the stem to keep the flower fresh. This approach has to do with paying attention and carefully harvesting what’s ready. It has to do with cherishing the fullness of the day itself.
This makes more sense in the context of Horace’s poem as well. He was writing, in this passage, about each of us facing an unforeseen future. We may plan for tomorrow but cannot count on tomorrow. As he writes, “In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.
Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi
Ask not (’tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years,
Time is a mystery contemplated in every era. It’s also a simple wealth we can enjoy right now. Don’t pressure yourself. Just pluck the day, my friend.
(Translation from Odes 1.11 by John Conington, 1882)