Seize Each Day Warmly by the Throat

Seize Each Day Warmly by the Throat

Extracted from Never Succumb to Beige & other tips for a colourful life by Frances Manwaring, Shrew Enterprises, RRP $37.99

Sometimes, I feel my life is shrinking before my eyes. I’m in my mid-sixties, for God’s sake! How on earth did that happen? My sense of mortality is growing. While no one knows how long they’ve got, the odds shorten with the decades—the sands of time are running out. I’m facing that old cliché where time is speeding up. It feels like the hours, days, weeks, months, even years speed by like the counter in HG Wells’ Time Machine.

Time to carpe diem, I say. Grab each day firmly by the throat and make it count. It’s easy to be subsumed in an obsession about some much-desired future state. It could be a new job, a flash home, a more exciting partner, moving to a new country, learning the piano, winning a career-changing award, or the in vitro treatment delivering the longed-for and almost given-up on baby.

Whatever the aspiration, putting everything else on hold until some new state arrives seems just plain dumb. Let’s face it: the ‘interesting times’ we are living through could play merry hell with even the best-laid plans, so I’m looking hard at the now. The future will have to go hang. There’s not much I can do about all the big, complicated stuff happening around me, so I’m focussing on the small, joyful things. I’m carpeing diem for all I’m worth, screening out as much of the noise as I can, and staying laser-focused on the things that matter most.

Full disclaimer: I’m a bit of a nerd and talking about seizing the day made me want to understand the expression’s origins. Carpe diem comes from Book 1 of the Roman poet Horace’s work Odes, written in 23 BC. These days, the expression is generally taken to mean living in the now. But the context from Horace is carpe diem, quam minimum credula poster—seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow. Horace’s point is that we can’t see what the future will bring, but we should do everything we can today to stack the odds—not just to put blind faith in everything randomly falling into place.

This train of thought took me circuitously to the concept of retirement planning. A few years ago, I took some significant risks treading the path of an entrepreneurial wannabe and lost not only my shirt but nearly my entire wardrobe. While I did indeed spectacularly seize the day, the expected gold at the end of my tech start-up’s rainbow didn’t materialise. We managed to avert total disaster, and some limited gold dust may drift towards my bank account at some future point, just not the hoped-for over-flowing pot of the stuff. (I say it ‘may’: hope does sometimes triumph over experience.)

Putting all your financial eggs in the start-up basket is a genius strategy if your name happens to be Mark Zuckerberg. Not so flash if you’re an Elizabeth Holmes and the wave of success turns out to be little more than surf breaking on the rocks of hubris and self-delusion. In Holmes’s case, there was also fraud on an industrial scale. In my case, there was no foul play, and we were tantalisingly close to our pot of gold, but the rainbow we were riding faded away before we could grab it and the resulting fall back to earth was a sobering, scary and sad plummet. However, to quote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s overused aphorism, “Out of life’s school of war — what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Given a life wrecked by the progressively debilitating effects of syphilis which ultimately and very sadly ate this beautiful mind—Nietzsche ended his life in incarcerated madness—you’d have to say he was in a position to know. And it has certainly been true for me.

A few years on, my finances are looking healthier, but I still have the odd anxiety dream about becoming an ageing bag lady wheeling my few possessions around in a shopping trolley. I’m pretty sure that the amount in my pension fund won’t keep me in style—I’ve wholeheartedly embraced Horace’s point about stacking the odds for the future. So I’ve decided retirement is for people who have nothing better to do, and therefore I won’t do it. At least not for a while.

Horace’s contemporaries probably weren’t agonising about whether their superannuation contributions would see the distance. In those days, if a baby made it through its first year, it could expect to live to the ripe old age of thirty-four. Reaching your fifth year delivered the heady possibility of making relatively ‘old bones’ at forty-eight. That’s 17,520 diems to carpe if you want to get granular. (As an aside, what went wrong between the Old Testament expectations of three score years and ten and Roman times? It must have been something to do with all that endless wandering around in the desert instead of luxuriating effetely in warm baths. Of course, there’s also the thing about being God’s chosen people…)

Anyway, in Ancient Rome, less than 5 percent of the population would be over sixty-five at any time. What a sensible arrangement!  All those lovely younger generations oozing tax denarii into the exchequer, leaving no question about the state’s ability to provide for its aged and infirm. Not that Rome was in any way a trailblazer in social welfare. But the Roman age ratios are attractive compared to our ‘boomer’ dominated reality and the scary lack of resourcing to see us through to our final curtains.

The problem is that this imbalance isn’t a temporary blip. Even assuming the militaristic wide boys step away from their nukes and stand down from their standoffs, at the speed that birth rates are falling around the world (not only in the West) and the prospect of rolling pandemics, we’re moving away from Roman proportions of youth to age faster than you can say “climate change is killing us”.

All joking aside, there’s a balance between living in the moment and leaving the future to chance. In the context of financial planning, there are many variables, such as how long we’ll live, how much money will be needed to achieve the twilight years lifestyle we aspire to and what environmental factors will kick in to derail it all. There’s also the whole Pandora’s box of our health. But that doesn’t mean there’s no point in looking beyond today. I’m thinking of all the wisdom from the past, like failing to plan is planning to fail (attributed to Churchill and Benjamin Franklin) and Seneca the Younger’s version, if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable. Then there’s Tolkien’s immortal version: It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations if you live near him.[1]

Business gurus have been preaching the gospel of vision, mission, and values as the foundation of success for decades. Rightly so. Business leaders are likely to achieve more, do better, make their shareholders wealthier, trade ethically, etc. if they have some inkling of what they’re trying to achieve. It’s no different for us as individuals. Visualising what we want is much more likely to deliver results than endlessly chasing a series of shiny new things.

I used to have a friend who was obsessed with spontaneity. She didn’t like being tied into commitments or rules and regulations, preferring to live on ad hoc terms. We often discussed (argued) the merits of this and had to agree to differ. Apart from anything else, it was intensely irritating that her need to be spontaneous resulted in an inability to get anywhere on time. I don’t think you can be spontaneous unless you live within a structure from which you can break out. You can’t think outside the box if you don’t know what the inside looks like. The best abstract painters start by learning how to draw and paint conventionally. In my book, unfettered spontaneity can only lead to nihilism because there is no focus.

Having no life plan invites chaos. Seizing the day is about visualising and working towards a desired future, enjoying the journey no matter what the outcome. As my literary hero, Robert Burns, knew so well, the ‘best-laid schemes o’ Mice and Men/ Gang aft agley’ (wrong/adrift). Pity to get to the part where they’ve gone agley, and you can only stand and gawp as your ambitions, certainties and years of your life get sucked into the vortex of time’s indifference. With a vision, retirement planning and other gnarly problems become moot because we already know which port we’re sailing to, whether it’s a Disney Castle, an Indian Ashram or somewhere in between. Circumstances do frequently rain on our planning parade, requiring regular recalibration.

But you’d have to say good planning offers better odds than relying on a Lotto win or miraculous manna to drop from the heavens. You can’t second-guess which curveballs the universe will lob at you. Or, as one of my favourite writers, columnist and academic Frank Bruni puts it, we should have a “Life map that allows for the serendipity of surprise which can thrill as often as it disappoints”.[2] The concept of pivoting has become something of a joke through overuse, but the ability to pivot is a useful one; to take advantage of the thrills brought by surprising serendipity, not its disappointments. Resilience, in other words—not the slavish inflexibility of the stick-to-the-programme brigade—because it would be ‘batshit boring’ if everything was pre-ordained.

In terms of feeling that my life is shrinking, I’m determined to make better use of this precious and diminishing time resource that once seemed to stretch to infinity. Stop bleeding out on things that don’t matter, letting time slip away like Salvador Dali’s famous melting clocks. I’m visualising as I write. In my vision, when the bell tolls for me, I’ve planned for it to interrupt something amazing, because I’ve dared to grab life warmly by its throat, to make it stand and deliver for however long I’ve got left.

[1] JRR Tolkein, The Hobbit Chapter XII (Pub 1937)

[2] New York Times, January 2024