It seems to me that the phrase ‘live for the moment’ has gotten away from us in much the same way that this very phrase suggests life has gotten away from us. It’s certainly an exciting phrase, a challenging phrase, a phrase pregnant with possibility, but does it have very much weight? It appears in many forms. ‘Carpe Diem’ is a call to ‘seize the day’ as if the day is something moving away from us that we must grab tight and wrestle to the ground. ‘YOLO’ which stands for ‘You Only Live Once,’ is a passive acknowledgement of our anxiety around the whole death business—something that Hindus are inevitably going to have a problem with. ‘Living in the present,’ is a phrase that, while well-intended, suggests that in the subconscious blink of an eye and the malevolent capitalist-hypno-snap of a finger, we’ll somehow find ourselves distracted, lost in some other hall of our minds with no one to wake us from the dream but an enlightened person standing outside of the whole trick.
Where did all this present-moment-worship begin? It’s all good and fine if we can glean some motivation out of it, but who in the world are these people who keep telling us this stuff and why, having found some way to ‘live for the moment,’ did they decide that they were going to spend their ‘moment’ telling us to live in ours?
One risks being in the position of a contrarian, a paranoid, a naysayer or a conspiracy theorist if one spends too much time carping about the media or the government and its messages. Not wanting to be a pessimist concerning The West’s favorite motivating pop-philosophy mantra but also remaining weary of potentially stupid and harmful ideas, one regrets having to call attention to the fact that many retailers and corporations use this very phrase or something much like it in order to coax you into buying something. ‘Come on,’ they say, ‘Just do it.’ Just buy it, in other words. The word ‘just’ is just as key here in stopping you from thinking too much about an expensive purchase as the word ‘only’ in ‘YOLO’ is key in making you focus on the singularity of the moment without its consequences.
But we all know that Nike and name-brands only represent a small fraction of the people pumping this idea into common usage. A lot of people saying it are artists who live off of their art and enjoy doing it, whether that be actors, musicians, writers or comedians—in other words, all the people whose ‘living for the moment’ made them a living.
And how are the rest of us living while they’re all living off of ‘living for the moment?’ Well, we’re doing much the same. We’re making a living so that we can live for some kind of moment, if not ‘the’ moment, even though we don’t always enjoy the living we make to get to that ‘moment’ or the ‘moments’ that occur in between. Some of us live for ‘a’ moment, a hobby, a habit, and if we’re single we end up devoting a lot of time to arriving at that hobby or habit, which usually means that we live paycheck to paycheck. If we are married with children, we live for our wives and children and hope that the short hand on the clock at work where we make our living will spin like a top so we can get home to them and have a fighting chance to enjoy our moments together.
Of course, more people than just artists enjoy the living they make. With that said, ‘living for the moment’ is at its best a reminder of our cognitive responsibility to present tasks and a call to stop whining about pains of the past while, at its worst, it is a complete negation of all responsibility to knowledge gained from the past and from intuitions about consequences in the future. The former is probably very Freudian, or at least, pop-psychological while the latter is very anti-establishment.
The most run down, complacent, boring, over-used aspects of ‘live for the moment’ probably reached their cultural height—thus creating a new breeding ground for it—in the 1960’s. It was then that youth culture began to distrust absolutely everything with utmost suspicion. Everything which had been done was constraining, manipulative, and if created, artificial. No organization, group, party or brand was worth following. The only wisdom needed was the wisdom of weed and the only music played was the music of the immediate. History itself was considered a simple fabrication of the academic world, an idea which pretty much ruled out any consideration of the past, which pretty much ruled out any need for education, which pretty much ruled out any responsibility to any piece of knowledge, which pretty much ruled out rules altogether.
Seeing any piece of knowledge that could only be gained over time as unfair to the most immediate drives and impulses, youth culture created some bad, irresponsible, pretentious art, a whole generation of fleeing fathers who just couldn’t hack having children, and a series of slogans and epithets which have become so cemented into language that they are taken as straight fact.
So we arrive at our today, believing that the key to enjoying life is to live ‘for’ today. We are all meant to be adventurers of the day-to-day, seducers of the commonplace and prophets of pure impulse. It seems to me that this ‘live for the moment’ thing only works if you do it sparingly, which then means that you ‘live for some moment at some point whenever everything that needs doing is done for the day.’ Perhaps a lucky few are able to achieve the most extreme subtext of the message as they either enjoy or quickly bounce back from unpleasant parts of the day. If we take this incredibly violent life philosophy with a grain of salt, we can forget its more extreme implications in favor of a shrug and a smile as we jump out of the airplane, twist and turn from the diving board or make a gleeful impulse purchase when shopping with the girls.
But who will be casualty to the more violent implications of this message? Who will take it so seriously that they, resentful of any suggestion of the consequences, go pee off the third balcony of a sports arena in the middle of a game, let a bull loose and paint the town red, set fire to a trashcan full of money or run through psych-wards dressed as Santa singing ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ at the top of their lungs?
At such a point, we’d have to figure that the implications of the phrase are embedded in this very word ‘for.’ When you live ‘for’ something, you are making yourself subordinate to it. I’m not sure exactly who decided that ‘the moment’ was the ultimate god to which we must lay subservient, our ultimate master, and that every jerky, adrenaline-fueled, dopamine-riddled itch and inclination should be ravished and robbed of even the slightest hint of hesitation. And anyway, who says that ‘the moment’ is some distinct, disembodied plane? Is a moment not an eventuation of another moment, and so on and so forth? The moment before makes this moment, and the only way to go about this moment is to take that into consideration.
Far more stupid than the phrase ‘live for the moment’ is the phrase, ‘live every day as though it’s your last.’ Is this thought-experiment supposed to compel me to have some kind of fun or make me do something ‘worth while?’ I’m afraid the only thing I would be doing with the knowledge that this was my last day on earth is saying goodbye to my family and loved ones, reminiscing about old times—that’s right, the past, the very thing that insecure ‘this moment’ worshippers are so afraid of and hate so much that they’d rather caress their egos and pretend that every thought they have and every thing they do is completely fresh, original and first born. I’m sorry but I don’t have time to keep saying goodbye to my friends and family everyday.
Though I would mistrust any commonplace too easily spoken and seldom practiced, why not try the opposite thought experiment out? Rather than treating every day as your last, why not treat everyday as your first?
How wonderful life would look if every day was your first. You’d have a thousand things to learn. A thousand people would have come before you. A thousand tools lay at your disposal for a thousand different projects. A thousand pastimes are yet to be explored and there are still a thousand people to meet and moments aplenty to know each of them.
Of course, we know that one day it’ll all end, but why in the world should we frighten and guilt ourselves into having a good time?