Have you heard the saying that you should ‘live each day as if it’s your last?’
How should we deal with this philosophy as creatives? How can we balance this mantra with the need to look after our wellbeing and enjoy life?
SOUNDS LIKE GOOD ADVICE, RIGHT?
On the surface this seems like an ideal mantra by which to live your life. I definitely relate to the sentiment behind it.
Time goes fast. Life is short. And we never know what could happen in a few years, or a few weeks, or tomorrow, or even a few minutes from now. It sounds dramatic and pessimistic, but there is no getting around the fact that tomorrow is not guaranteed.
I KNOW THIS BETTER THAN MANY
The timing of this post is not a coincidence.
On Friday 3rd June it will be 25 years since I lost my Dad to stomach cancer.
He was 41 years old. Not much older than I am now.
I was 10.
I’m not going to spend this post going into what that was like or how it affected my life. I’ll summarise by resorting to a stereotypical English understatement: ‘it wasn’t ideal’.
A side effect of losing a parent at such a young age is that I’m hyper-aware of my own mortality. I’m not afraid of death itself: rather I’m afraid of the timing and circumstances of my death, and especially of dying before my boys grow up and before achieving my ambitions.
I think of Dad every single day. I miss him every single day. Now that I’m a parent myself I can only imagine how it must have torn him apart, in the weeks between his diagnosis and death, knowing it was terminal and that he would leave his three children behind. Just the thought of it makes me nauseous, and has me panicking every time something in my body is remotely different to how it normally is. Knowing my risk of gastric cancer is increased doesn’t help!
So why am I going into this? To hammer home the point that none of us knows how long we’ve got, and that we should make the most of it?
Yes and no.
WHY THIS SAYING IS PROBLEMATIC
While the phrase ‘live each day like it’s your last’ seems wise on the surface, I personally don’t think it translates well to daily life.
If I knew the exact date of my future death (not that I want to know!) then I would plan the best possible ‘last day of my life’. I’d spend it with my family: we’d eat sushi; go for a walk along the beach with trays of seaside fish and chips; eat raw cookie dough while watching a film (yikes, I’m obsessed with food). I’d hug my boys until they squirmed out of my grip. This would be a wonderful way to spend my last day in this life, or to spend any day in this life.
The trouble is, I don’t know how to ‘live each day like my last’ because it would be impossible to do this every day. If we threw off all our responsibilities and concentrated purely on making the most of every second, then it wouldn’t take long for us to run out of money and clean clothes.
I love my boys more than life itself. They’re kind, intelligent and funny. They make me laugh more than I’ve ever laughed in my life. However, it doesn’t change the fact that some moments and/or days are difficult and draining, and my power to change this is limited. Some moments and days are poo (sometimes figurative, sometimes literal).
So how can we make the most of each day?
I appreciate the sentiment, but find it unwieldy for daily life.
I’M (PROBABLY) BEING PARANOID
In Western culture we’re taught to be aware of and fear death from a young age. The constant stream of tragic, awful stories on the news and on social media means we’re hyper-aware of the bad things that can happen to people (and my heart goes out to anyone affected by these types of events). We’re constantly told (both overtly and covertly) that any day we wake up could be our last.
Yes, this is true. But what good does it do us to live in fear of bad things happening to us, or of not waking up tomorrow? (I’m addressing myself as much as anyone else as I type this!)
Obviously, this depends on a person’s age, health and general situation, but it is almost certain that I will wake up tomorrow. I will probably be here in a week. Or a month. Or a year. (This post will turn out to be scary and ironic if I die before hitting these timepoints!) Most of the people born in the same year as me are still alive, and most of us will be around for many years to come. Even someone in their eighties is likely to still be around a year later.
Yet we’re constantly brainwashed into thinking that we’ll all get squished by some evil Grim Reaper any day now. Especially those of us who antagonise them by writing in our blog that we’ll probably still be alive a year from now.
HOW ‘LIVING EACH DAY’ RELATES TO CREATIVE AMBITIONS
I see conversations among the writing community on Twitter about the age at which you should start writing, or when people would like to be published by, or at what ages certain authors and other creatives were deemed to have ‘made it’.
I’m currently thirty-five years old. Although I’ve been writing my entire life, it’s only recently that I started taking serious steps to make my author dreams a reality. There are many writers younger than I am who already have multiple books published and a ‘successful’ author career.
Then again, there are many more writers who started their journeys much later than I did, many of whom are enjoying ‘successful’ author careers too.
We writers regularly hear about ‘outliers’ who got major publishing deals before they were thirty. Good for them (and for once I’m not being sarcastic), but it can make it feel like this is the norm rather than the exception.
Similarly, when we hear about the tragic death of a young person on the news, or when bad luck means it happens within our own circle, it’s easy to think that we should expect to die young and ‘unfulfilled’ (whatever that means).
I often find myself wishing I’d started my author journey a lot sooner and taken it seriously when I was in my teens and twenties, and didn’t wait until I was juggling raising small humans and other life complications. I berate myself for this wasted time and opportunity, and wonder if I’ll ever have time to write all the things I want to, even if I do live a long and healthy life.
Then another voice answers. If I’m being honest with myself, I don’t think I was ready back then to take on the challenge of launching and maintaining a successful author career. In some ways I feel like the same person, but in many other ways I know how different thirty-something Claire is to twenty-something Claire (and I know which version I prefer). I’m so much more confident and comfortable in my own skin, and I have a wealth of life experience which I didn’t have ten years ago. I honestly believe I would’ve started too young if I’d tried to do this in my twenties. And I’m sure forty-something Claire will look back on this version of me and laugh at my naivety. Assuming I make it to my forties.
So, when people worry about the passage of time in relation to their writing or creative career, I think the following question sums it up perfectly. Is it too late to follow your creative passion? If you’re dead then yes. If you’re not then no. As long as you’re breathing and functioning, then it’s not too late.
Pursue your creative dreams! We never know how much time we have left, after all.
However, don’t wear yourself out and suck the enjoyment from your life in order to do so.
HOW ‘LIVING EACH DAY’ RELATES TO CREATIVE AMBITIONS
Time for me to create a metaphor and milk it for all its worth.
Imagine you have a brand-new car. You bought the car to drive long distances and see as many interesting and fascinating places as possible. You have a list of these places, all of which you want to reach and experience during your limited time on Earth. Imagine you will never be able to own another car after this one.
So you pick up the car and notch up thousands of miles in your first month, driving to as many places on your list as possible so you can tick them off, because ‘you never know what might happen’. If you want to see all these fantastic destinations then you need to get on with it, because you could die tomorrow. You continue this pattern for the following month, and the one after that, driving your car here there and everywhere, turning up briefly to each of these places so you can tick them off your travel bucket list.
You keep this pattern up for a while. However, your car doesn’t seem new anymore. Its paint is growing chipped and scratched. The interior is covered in dust and crumbs. The tyres are reaching their legal limit. But you carry on, because you still have many places you want to reach.
Fast forward a few years. You’ve finally visited all the places on your list. However, you don’t remember much about them because you were there for such a short time, itching to move on and reach the next location as soon as possible.
Worse, your shiny new car is now falling apart. You didn’t get it serviced because you didn’t have time. There are many thousands of miles on the clock. It’s covered in dents and scratches. The windscreen is cracked. It makes a weird noise every time you turn right.
You ticked every destination on your bucket list, but what do you have to show for it? You didn’t stay in any location long enough to sit, to live in the moment and to enjoy just being there. Your car (aka you) is burnt out and exhausted from being hauled across a country and/or continent without regular maintenance and servicing (aka rest and self-care), being driven and driven until it collapses in a rusty heap at the side of the road. And remember you can’t get another one. You can’t just replace your mind and body if they break down, and the more damage is done, the longer and more expensive the repairs are (if repair is even possible).
Oh, and look at that. You’re still alive. Your fears about dying young were unfounded after all.
If you add children / family to the mix: imagine dragging them here there and everywhere on your fraught and fearful life journey. All of you are rushed, stressed, and resentful of each other. You don’t get chance to enjoy your children growing up or to have fun with them in whatever place you happen to be, because you’re too focused on the next place, the next destination, the next achievement.
The truth is, despite what the media and the capitalist mindset would like us to believe, most of us (at least those of us lucky enough to live in developed countries) will still be around next year. A few years from now. Ten years from now. So why shouldn’t we slow down, look after ourselves, enjoy ourselves, live in the moment more? Otherwise, what is the point in being alive for any length of time at all?
Cars have an expected life span, just like humans. Unfortunately, some of those cars will not reach their target age, whether through an accident, an unknown manufacturing fault, or something else. However, if looked after and maintained, and if not driven too hard and too fast, then your car should safely reach many or all of the destinations on your list, and you will have taken the time to enjoy each one and to enjoy the company of the wonderful people you are on the journey with.
To me, living each day like it’s your last isn’t helpful or productive. To me, this mantra is a symptom of the pervasive capitalist mindset entrenched in our lives, that we should work ourselves to the bone to achieve all the things and make all the money asap because we might not wake up to tomorrow (when almost all of us will).
Instead of ‘live each day like it’s your last’, I think it would be healthier and more useful to ‘live each day like it matters’. Yes, work towards your goals and ambitions, but remember to enjoy the here and now, and enjoy the people who matter (and for exactly the same reasons). Life is a journey, not a destination. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Choose whichever mantra helps you balance achieving your goals with living your best life.
Yes, I may be one of the unlucky ones. But even if my time on Earth is cut short, I want to achieve as much as possible before that point, and more importantly enjoy my family as much as possible.
BEFORE YOU GO…
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I do not use generative AI to produce or inform my blog, my images, or my fiction. All of my content is generated by the chaotic firing of my own (human) brain! (I have access to some images through my Wix subscription). I do not consent to the use of my content, images, or fiction to train generative AI models. Please contact me to discuss permission and compensation if you wish to use my content in this way.