Seize the day, yes but don’t lose your mind.
In Dead Poets’ Society, Professor Keating got my attention. He inspired me to live life to the fullest, to dine on bone marrow, to drink deep the joys available to me. That brazen and unorthodox teacher made me want to tear pages from books, stand on top of my desk, and proclaim my freedom.
I had seen that movie when I was younger but watched it again when I first went away to college. I really latched onto those ideas then. I took on a role of whimsy and I was alive with passion and fire and excitement. I lived by compulsion. Compulsion rather than discipline ruled my life. By compulsion, I wrote poems, studied, listened to music, talked to girls, planned my future. I was deathly afraid of dull moments. I was ever in search of an event or an audience or a moment.
I was not free. What felt like romance and adventure was more like mental illness. I lived by the seat of my emotions. When those emotions began to settle once I was in a serious relationship with my future wife, I moved from mania toward depression. There was no longer that life or death energy fueling my every movement. Nothing moved me because the roller coaster had come to a stop. I was down. I hadn’t prepared for that.
I stopped writing as regularly. I wasn’t as romantic. I lost sight of the vision I had for my future. I got depressed. Really depressed. I couldn’t figure a way out. I tried to “force the trip” so to speak. I’d do things that had stimulated the positive emotion before. I listened to the same music. I’d recreate experiences I had enjoyed. I read books on how to change myself or improve my situation. Some of these helped, but most of the attempts fell flat which served to puzzle and frustrate me more.
I had made a trap for myself and it was going to take some time to dig out. I learned to appreciate those pleasant experiences when they came around. Meanwhile, I learned to endure experiences which were more trying. This time was very important. It took this time for me to learn things about myself that I would need to know how to live more effectively without relying on external stimuli. I needed to know what mattered to me, what I valued in the long-term not just what was exciting in the moment.
Within the landscape of pop culture, there is no shortage of the Carpe Diem message. Ryan Adams has a song I love, “Firecracker” in which he theorizes, “Well, everybody wants to go forever. I just want to burn up hard and bright. I just want to be your firecracker and maybe be your baby tonight.”
But what about tomorrow? I didn’t think a lot about it then. I thought about it some, I wasn’t a complete idiot, but I didn’t give much thought to how my choices added up for the future.
Some will point out, “Ryan Adams made quite a bit of amazing music. Shouldn’t we all aspire likewise?” I can’t argue with that. I will say though that I imagine Mr. Adams story would be a little different today. He nearly burned out completely until a few years ago when he finally got clean and sober. He makes less music now but from what I’ve read he is happier. That beats all the great recordings in all the world.
My advice is not that you should become a stoic. Emotions are there for a reason. Don’t stop feeling but think twice as much as you feel. Examine your feelings to see if they are a healthy response to circumstances. If you don’t know, find people to provide helpful insight. Avoid people who agree with everything you say. They’re less valuable than a tape recorder. You know what you think (if you stop to think about it). What good is someone to tell you what you already know. Decide what you think, THEN decide how you feel, then decide what action to take.
The mistake we make is to think of our emotions and our reactions as isolated incidents. Instead, imagine each as a line continuing unto infinity out into space. Are they leading where you want to go?