Posted by: Robin | June 6, 2008

The Great Divide, Part 1

rose Seize the day! Carpe diem has a long literary history beginning with the Latin poet Horace. As well as the translation popularized by “Dead Poets Society,” carpe more generally means pick, pluck or gather, as in roses. Sound familiar? I first met the concept of carpe diem studying the Metaphysical poets, particularly Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” better known by its first line “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Today I learned that he was paraphrasing another line of poetry sometimes attributed to Virgil, “collige virgo rosas” (gather, girl, the roses). Respondng to the constraints of time and death by grabbing the gusto now (as a beer commercial used to urge us) is probably as old as human civilization. King Solomon was certainly familiar with it when he wrote Ecclesiastes 8:15, “Eat, drink and be merry,” hundreds of years before the Latin poets. Jesus said, “I have come that [you] may have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10b)

All are saying that life is meant to be vibrant and fully lived, and we have only the certainty of the present moment to do it. I agree, yet I often find carpe diem troubling. I celebrate the idea of living fully each day with acute awareness and gratitude as if it were my last, as Ecclesiastes urges. In fact it encapsules the life lesson I am trying to master: “recognizing the present duty in the present moment.” More often, though, poets, philosophers, rebels and most of us in our teens and twenties invoke it as a license to do whatever we want, no matter how selfish, excessive or destructive, and do it defiantly. In “Dead Poet’s Society,” it was a rallying cry to wake up to life and resist those still asleep who would pressure us to conform. This is heady stuff, even needed stuff at times . . . but as the film soon reveals, it is a charge vulnerable to inspiring choices that can tragically curtail time and invite death. Having personally seen too much tragic waste of young lives in the pursuit of being “merry” carpe diem has come to feel like the equivalent of telling my kids to play in the street.

Two recent films have reminded me that carpe diem is essentially neutral, and it can look very different than a heedless pursuit of pleasure. The mandate is to live today fully and know it. It doesn’t say how, but insists the how matters. Nothing brings that more into focus than unexpected tragedy or a near miss with death. Each of us must decide how we will live our moments, both in action–ignore it, embrace it or resist it–and in attitude–apathy, anger or appreciating how precious it is. 

“Things We Lost in the Fire” portrays a family and best friend’s wrenching struggle to come to terms with unexpected loss and urges us to learn to “Accept the good.” Life at its darkest still has grace-notes of love, compassion, humanity and laughter, and if we will receive them–when we can again receive them–they can bring healing. As a whole, the film had the makings to be more powerful than it was in execution, but it was deeply perceptive about how human beings often react when in searing pain. When we most desperately need help we are often the least willing and/or able to receive it. Benicio del Toro gives a subtle performance ranging from quiet despair to exquisite sweetness as he learns to believe that he, too, deserves to “accept the good” and inhabit the present moment as a gift.

But it is the HBO movie “My House in Umbria” in its complex simplicity that illustrates the power in “Fire”‘s mantra, “Receive the good,” and Herrick’s recycled “Gather ye rosebuds.” I don’t think I’ve ever been so inarticulate about a movie. The sum of the individual parts should not so excel them. Rarely is the storyteller’s “Show not tell” followed so scrupulously to such revealing effect. How can a movie so absent in dramatic moments or commanding emotions be so unforgettably wise? It is the story of four people who survive an explosion in their train compartment.

As the survivors gather at the title house of Maggie Smith’s Emily Delahunty in order to heal and remain accessible to the police investigating the explosion, each of these complex, flawed, grieving people is presented with the challenge of not only receiving the good, but choosing it. The central question the film asks from multiple perspectives is whether choosing the good is simply an escape, or worse, a denial of the way things really are: we are each capable of pettiness, foolishness, and despicable acts, and life can be capriciously, devastatingly inexplicable. Or might it simply be an act of survival, possibly even courage? Might it be the better portion?

As seen through the eyes of romance novelist Delahunty the story unfolds. It is a strange journey. In turns one is ready to dismiss the narrator as an unreliable dreamer only to stop short at her frequent perception of uncomfortable realities. Her pathetic neediness and pretensions alternate with generosity and a rare gift for nurture. Maggie Smith is the master of all her character’s colors, sometimes all at once, but quietly so. It is an amazing performance, not least for it’s deceptive simplicity.

In the final scene Chris Cooper’s character Riversmith sends Emily Delahunty a precious gift, but with no guarantees that any day, tomorrow or years from now, he might not insist upon the gift’s return. She turns from her gardening and says,” I doubt Mr. Riversmith will ever come back for [it].”

The General, her fellow survivor, warns, “He may come back next month.”

“I may be dead in a month. The moon may crash into the earth. Who knows what dreadful things may happen. In this moment I am happy . . .”

“Carpe diem,” the General replies. When Emily Delahunty admits she’s never really understood what that means, he adds, ” . . . Embrace the present; enjoy life while you’ve got the chance.”

“Carpe diem. I’ll remember that.” She smiles as if she has swallowed all the happiness in life in a single gulp, the sweetness made all the more precious by a lifetime’s tragedies and desperate lies. Without words Smith’s glance says, “We have back what we thought never to have again. It is too rare a gift. I will not diminish it with what ifs. This is a moment of pure sunlight without any shadow. I will be only here. I will give it its full due. I choose love, holding nothing back, come what may.”

So, carpe diem. This is our moment to choose. What will it be?



  1. type theory might have some insight here. For the SP encountering the moment might be what we usually think of- being active, physically engaged in doing something in response to the outward stimuli presented. For the SJ it might be fitting the moment into the greater structure of things. For the NT it might be fully comprehending the moment intellectually. For the NF it might be connecting the moment relationally with another person. How do you sieze the moment?

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