I Have Two Heads: Carpe Diem

Opinion by Rachel Kolb
May 24, 2011, 12:29 a.m.

I Have Two Heads: Carpe DiemDuring the last week, I had one of those glorious spring-quarter days that reminded me all over again why I love being at Stanford. The sky shone a brilliant blue, I felt myself surrounded by great people, I biked across campus after class feeling exuberant about what I had learned and what I had yet to do. Why would I ever want to leave this place?

It was one of those days, in other words, that made me want to press pause, to preserve the moment in an elixir-filled vial for times to come — because I realized that this attitude of feeling absolutely content in the present stands in sharp contrast to how I often go about my life at Stanford. In the back of my mind, I hope I always remember how fortunate I am to be here. I hope I take advantage of these undergraduate years as much as I can. But in the cycle of everyday life, I often fall into the pattern of letting those moments fall by the wayside.

Around the end of the quarter, especially, around the time when I start feeling a bit flat and burned out, I tend to wake up and view each day as another hurdle I need to overcome. A paper is due, or a group project, or a packed schedule of class after class or meeting after meeting, after which I’ll return to a slew of emails and a lingering sense of guilt over not making more time for more people, more activities, more everything. Can we please skip to next week, already? Or to after finals week? To summer? I feel fragmented. I come dangerously close to convincing myself that I take no joy in the pressures of my present life. I only want to fast-forward, I only want it to be over.

I don’t think I am alone. When I ask friends how they are, I sometimes receive the answers “Good, once this week is over” or “Next Tuesday can’t come fast enough!” Stanford has the reputation for chill, in-the-moment spontaneity — just look at all those students out fountain-hopping or playing Frisbee this time of year — but at the same time, it can be easy to view our time here as a never-ending shopping list of obligations, which stuns us into a mentality that only desires to escape. Of course, escape in far-reaching terms is life post-Stanford. Next Tuesday is another step closer to that day. And, while we’ll all be ready to graduate when the time comes, I don’t think many of us want to rush through our lives like the present moment means nothing to us.

One of the special things about Stanford is how so many people want to be here. Some of my acquaintances from other schools report just wanting to finish their educations so that they can settle into their real lives. Give me that degree now, and be done with it. I don’t see that attitude very often at Stanford. But there is still the question: how do we embrace a productive, get-things-done mentality without unintentionally squandering these years that we’ll someday look back on with such nostalgia?

I guess what I’m after is a sense of perpetual carpe diem. But “seize the day” isn’t quite the sensation I’m going for. There are plenty of days that I and other Stanford students do seize, if only to power through to the other side. While taking Latin in high school, I learned to think about this phrase a different way. The imperative verb “carpe” doesn’t mean “seize.” Rather, it is literally translated as pluck, enjoy, make use of, even savor. The way Horace originally intended the phrase, we would grab onto the present moment the same way we pluck a ripe grape from the vine, holding it in our hand before biting down into its sweetness.

From this perspective, carpe diem refers not so much to combating each day before rushing off with its spoils. Rather, it has a slower and more contemplative feel. How can we hang on to the day at hand, even as our lives prompt us to press fast-forward and plow through? It often isn’t possible to divert our sources of pressure, of course. Our entire lives will involve stress or decision-making in one form or another, and in the big scheme of things, many of those details are only minutiae. We might not be able to change our external conditions, but we can adopt a more balanced, more methodical mindset with which to approach them.

I still remember my Latin teacher asking me, all while stroking his beard, how would I spend my very own carpe diem? What would I do? Now I think I would answer this question not in terms of actual activities — I already have too many — but in terms of viewing the world in its proper proportion. Resist the temptation to rush or get flustered. Remember we don’t have to do these things, we get to. Savor the moment. Whatever strategy that takes.


Rachel wants to know which Latin idioms govern what you’re perpetually after. Send her your favorites at [email protected].

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