There is a boat in the French city of Bergerac called “Carpe Diem”. It takes groups of visitors on hour long trips up and down the Dordogne river. A guide tells the history of the city, points out the waterside architectural features and helps the trippers appreciate the beauty of the nature that is all around them. Having travelled twice on the trip, and seen a kingfisher on both occasions, it seems a wonderful way to pass an hour. Of course, had I understood the boat’s name, I would have understood that every hour should be spent in the best way possible, that there shouldn’t be a moment wasted waiting for something to happen.
It was at least ten years after the first boat trip that I looked up “carpe diem”. We never studied Latin so never encountered the Roman poet Horace who wrote, “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero.” Translated into English, Horace’s words are, “Seize the day, putting as little trust as possible in the future”. Horace’s words run contrary to the spirit of our times where political uncertainty and economic crisis have contributed to an attitude where almost every trust is placed in the future – aspirations, plans, savings, investments – we have become a people inclined to entrust as much as possible to the future. Even going on the boat trip for a second time was something left to the future, it was fifteen years between the first trip in 1999 and the second in 2014, despite being in the area five times in the intervening period.
Life is lived as if an indefinite future stretches out ahead of us; only occasionally are we jolted from our complacency. Walking down Dublin’s Camden Street this morning, a piece of art on a gable wall caught the eye: in large white letters on a blue background, “U ARE ALIVE*” and in smaller letters beneath, “*Avail of this ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity”.
There is an urgency in the piece, even with the humorous suggestion that life is like some retail special offer, there is an exhortation to being aware of the here and now, and to live life in the present. Horace would presumably have identified with such sentiments. He doesn’t just say live in the here and now, he says “seize” it.
Of course, we might smile at such a bold piece of art; we might think it interesting that a Latin poet had expressed such sentiments; we might think more frequent boat trips would be desirable, but do we do a single thing about it?
There are so many things about the future that cause us to worry that we have not time to avail of the offer of today.