I am rethinking carpe diem (seize the day).
We who have a career in medicine have a clear understanding of the long haul—planning years in advance the steps we need to take, where we need to be, who we need to find, and how long we will need to work before seeing the end of the tunnel. We knowingly walk our particular fork in the road, weary head down and eyes focused, miles before even the potential of seeing if the destination is as wonderful as we expect it to be.
Straying off the line, especially in competitive fields, may have led to questions about a lack of commitment or focus. There was always an exam to prepare for, a talk to attend, a procedure to learn, a teachable moment, a new rotation. When I finished my Royal College exams, I realized it was the first time since high school that I didn’t have my next month programmed for me.
If I’m recognizing it correctly, there is a decidedly different mood now. Many in my kids’ generation realistically believe that the Earth as we know it may cease to exist within their lifetimes. They are not as interested in the long haul if it means sacrificing too much of the now. They will probably not be able to afford a house, and having a basic university degree may not give them enough career advantage to balance the incurred debt, both financial and temporal. Many don’t drive. Many won’t have kids. There is a highly subscribed-to Reddit site called FI/RE (Financial Independence/Retiring Early) where people look for ways to not have long careers. What many appear to be doing differently from my generation is taking control of their paths in ways we had been programmed to think were shortsighted and only immediately gratifying.
The pandemic has been a big wake-up. We can now really see how little friggin’ control we have, how vulnerable our pithy plans are. How a tiny particle that didn’t exist 5 years ago can upend the world economy, our work, our political activity, our family structure, our plans. How even when being careful and vaccinated and masked people could die as a result of their short-term choices. The novel downtime we had for retrospection during the beginning of lockdown let us recognize that we hadn’t sufficiently appreciated the time we had with our friends and families, that we should have taken that trip instead of working, that nurses deserve neighborhood applause, that live entertainment is in fact something special, that now contains so much short-term joy.
I am realizing that we studiously looked away so as to keep to our path. People and wonderful moments are truly fleeting, and we may even miss missing them if we don’t look up enough. Beyond the pandemic, there are accidents and diseases; beloved family members are lost to malignancy or sudden vascular events; a war breaks out somewhere in the world, and opportunities and lives are lost in the time it takes a missile to land.
We take for granted that we will one day enjoy all the little things again. I hope not to regret too much that all those little things may no longer be there to enjoy.
I used to think that carpe diem was a kind of admonishment for us to not waste time off our path. To not procrastinate in striving for our goals. What I am being taught by my kids’ generation and by this horrible viral particle is that what we should seize might be more off the path than on it.
Maybe our kids are better at balancing what they are willing to invest and recognize that nihilism is okay during a time of no control and perhaps no guaranteed future. The minutes spent sleeping in, cuddling with a partner or a pet, or lounging with friends doing absolutely nothing might be the best parts of the day to seize.
There is a corollary aphorism that counsels carpe omnia. Seize it all. Be present in everything. Find joy and relationships in all parts of life. Don’t wait until your ducks are in a row. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to live that way when I was young and focused on “getting there,” but I am definitely more sympathetic to millennials looking off the path that we followed.
Be kind to yourself, present and future. Carpe omnia.
—Cynthia Verchere, MD
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