According to Marcus Aurelius, the perfection of character is achieved when you live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretense. His comments have since been bastardized to simply: “live each day as if it will be your last.”
I’m not a philosopher but it is obvious to see that the promise conveyed by this sentiment is powerful and intoxicating. Who wouldn’t want to spend each day avoiding the mundane, the trivial, the banal, the inconsequential? Is there anyone anywhere on the planet who woke up today with a plan to fill up their life with mediocre goals or to fritter it away with pointless and nonsensical action?
The problem with such tripe is that it conveys this sense of profundity while offering no actionable guidance on how a normal person can achieve this state of nirvana; where every day is spent devoted only to that which matters most. For those of us who aren’t Roman emperors, the world is filled with mundane and unavoidable dreck that must be completed without any promise of deep fulfillment or meaning.
Of course, in fairness to Marcus Aurelius, he wasn’t really suggesting that a person should ignore the trivial in favour of doing only the “consequential.” Instead, he seems to be suggesting that to achieve perfection, you have to live in the moment, focused solely on the task at hand. But, here again, most of us can’t live that way either — focussing exclusively on the now to the exclusion of tomorrow.
I have been fixating on this quote since my father died in 2019. It was a sudden event, one that did not permit me to gain any closure. My relationship with my father was complicated, and it perplexed me all the way to the end. But this post isn’t about those complexities, but rather my sudden realization that it was all over so suddenly. I was jarred by how quickly it all ended. One minute, he was there, a lightning rod of joy and anger in my life, the next he wasn’t. And while I had certainly heard all the granola crunchers and philosophers and new-age hippies preaching about living in the moment, I had never really embraced any kind of personal philosophy of my own.
So I found myself thinking about this idea of living each day as if it were your last and I concluded that it was entirely unworkable. I soon realized that if I really believed that today was my last day, there would be a million pointless yet necessary actions and events I would discard in favour of actions that might create fulfilment before it was too late. But here too, I wonder if that isn’t really what Marcus Aurelius was getting at — that you can’t wait until tomorrow to create meaning in your life because tomorrow might not arrive. Clearly postponing important actions, ones that feel meaningful would be no better than trying to cram a million meaningful moments into every day.
Instead, I concluded that somewhere between the “live each day as if it is your last” and the “Tomorrow I will be able to do the things I find meaningful”, there had to be a middle ground. Somehow I had to figure out how to create enough urgency in my day-to-day existence that I would not spend my days squandering my time but also accept that there had to be a long enough horizon that I didn’t banish long-term planning and goal setting entirely. If nothing else, I couldn’t see how I could build a meaningful life in a single day nor, I realized, could I expect to have a sufficient amount of time to build that meaningful life over many years.
I still haven’t sorted out how to make it work. Somedays I feel this overwhelming sense of urgency to try and do all of the things I feel are important to me in a single day and other days I can’t generate any urgency at all. Somedays, I struggle to find joy in the meaningless and banal activity that we all must endure as a part of our existence, and other days I find pleasure in even the most trivial action since I know it will lead to a brighter tomorrow; assuming, of course, that the sun will rise for me tomorrow.