It can seem like there are hundreds of them. Those little phrases that tell you that you should make the most of today. Like, “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” Or “We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while.” Or “Live everyday as if it were your last.” Or “Tomorrow, you’ll be dead.” OK, admittedly the last one isn’t one you’ve heard before.
I think it’s odd that most of these sayings insist that today is only important if tomorrow you won’t be here and alive. As if, when you find yourself alive tomorrow, everything that was important about today will be unimportant. As if “the fierce urgency of now” is only fierce or urgent in the face of impending death.
Perhaps it’s not actually odd. It’s somewhat sensible: the so-often-ignored remarkableness of being alive is much easier to see if tomorrow we won’t have this so-often-ignored thing anymore. To quote Joni Mitchell, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?” Perhaps it’s only when we the see the clear difference between being alive and being dead that we understand the unmistakable value in this thing called life.
And to quote–because this seems to be a topic much discussed in the literature–Marcel Proust wrote:
I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were suddenly threatened to die… Think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, our life hides from us, made invisible by our laziness, which certain of a future, delays them incessantly.
But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.
I think Proust, like all those other sayings and songs and phrases, makes a valuable point. And I suppose what I want to say is that I wish that it didn’t take the thought of our impending end to make us realize that every single day you wake up alive is truly an amazing day. Surely there may be some terrible things you’ll go through today, and tomorrow, and the next week, but you’re still alive. “It goes on.”
And so while I intimately understand why writers and poets so often bring up the thought of death, I wish we could learn to take note of life in itself. I’ve not said this as eloquently as I would like, but I’m just glad I got a day in which to say it. And I’ll leave you with Proust’s more eloquent–and somewhat ironic–elucidation of the problem with constantly valuing life only in the face of tomorrow’s death:
The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.