Respecting one’s elders is a long-standing human tradition for good reason.  The elders of the tribe have often been seen as the wise ones, the ones who carry the experience and knowledge the younger ones need to survive and thrive.  And the elders of the tribe have lived long enough to have avoided some of the pitfalls of those who died younger, like being eaten by tigers.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl gives advice he shared with patients and that he himself followed.  He suggests that when faced with a decision or turning point in life, you should imagine what your 80-year old self would do in that situation.  Presumably, your 80-year old self would say things like “Take that swing, slugger!  You can do it!” or “Ack! Steer clear of the redhead!”

A few years ago, we visited the city of Pompeii.  At the Archaeological Museum in Naples (where the Pompeiian collection is displayed[1]), one particular artifact seemed poignant given how Pompeii ended:  a mosaic of a human skull signifying “Memento Mori” or “Remember, we all die.”  This philosophy was also ever-present at the Capuchin catacombs in Sicily, another eerie place we visited.  In the Capuchin catacombs, they take their genealogy to a deeper level, putting their actual dead ancestors on display for visitation.  Not only are the bodies on display, but their heads are deliberately turned to face onlookers, forcing introspection of one’s own mortality.[2]  The tour guide explained that this was to remind descendants of the dead that they too will die, and they should live their lives accordingly.  Maternal guilt knows no bounds in Sicily.

These two philosophies:  memento mori (remember you are mortal) and carpe diem (sieze the day) are related, but differing concepts. Both remind us to be thoughtful about our actions.  Memento mori has a portentous quality, a warning to avoid regrets for wrongful acts, to make the most of our time, to stay on the right path.  Carpe diem spurs us to take risks, to not waste our lives in waiting or inaction, to live for the moment.  Carpe diem says don’t procrastinate, while memento mori says get over yourself, stud.

“We must all suffer one of two things:  the pain of discipline or the pain of regret or disappointment.”  Jim Rohn  (Memento mori)

“I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.”  Lucille Ball (Carpe diem) [3]

Harvard Business Review recently published a book called Life’s Lessons featuring advice from the graduating class of 1963.  A lot of their advice was more or less what you would expect, but there were a few surprises in there also.  One recurring theme was this war between the ideals of memento mori and carpe diem.

Here are a few of the tidbits offered by the class of 1963 that fit the carpe diem mold:

Have fun. You’ll be dead a long time.  (Anonymous)

The secret of life is to get lucky and stay there — and make the most of it every day. (Charley Ellis)

Do not look back. Once a choice is made, live with the consequences. Forget what might have been. (J. Lawrence Wilson)

Do your own thing. Do what you enjoy and financial success will follow your enthusiasm. (Sam Abel-Smith)

One is never sure of the future.  Be prepared for everything.  Don’t hurry through your life. (Anonymous)

It’s the life in your years, not the years in your life.  (Warren Batts)

Don’t plan your life or career too much. Things happen. Keep moving ahead. (Phillip B. Smith)

And a few that sound a little more memento mori:

My obit will probably include a host of awards, high positions, and achievements, — and I’m proud of them. But there is a certain joy that surpasses all understanding. I would like to have found that. (Anonymous)

The totality of one’s life is the sum of the many, many choices that one will face and make. Make your choices thoughtfully. (John A Fabian)

Be kind. Soon we’ll all be dead. (Dave Crowley)

Don’t risk everything you’ve saved on any one “deal.”  Give each decision a small test before going ahead with it.  (Lawrence D. Ackman)

Never forget where you came from, and always remember what you are here for. Be true to your values and faith. We are here for a purpose. Enjoy the ride. (John A. Moeller)

Although memento mori isn’t a direct contradiction of carpe diem, the underlying philosophy seems to be driven by how you view your life to this point, whether you regret missed opportunities (carpe diem) more than you regret mistakes you made (memento mori).  If you feel you’ve needed more restraint to live a good life, you might be more likely to give memento mori advice.  If you feel you should have taken more risks, carpe diem may appeal more.[4]

Carpe diem has a more hedonistic ring to it:  “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”  If you live your whole life for duty and others, you will have only half lived.  While Robin Williams extolled making one’s life extraordinary in Dead Poets Society, he was also specifically encouraging the boys to break free from the shackles of duty and parental oppression, to think for themselves, to pursue their own happiness, and to follow their passions, even if it meant kissing someone else’s girlfriend, lying to parents, or breaking curfew.

Memento mori is a humbling idea, reminding us that no matter how great we think we are, we all end the same way.  In the words of poet Thomas Gray, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”  As another author put it, memento mori puts the brakes on unwise actions, whereas carpe diem spurs you on, sometimes foolishly, reminding you that your acts will live on without you.  In the words of Barney Stinson, doing that crazy thing will be legen-wait for it-dary.  But as we are reminded in Shelley’s poem Ozymandias [5], even that which is legendary doesn’t last.

What advice would your 80-year old self give your current self?  What are your life lessons?  What do you wish you knew then that you know now?  Are you a memento mori person or a carpe diem person?


[1] including the secret smut exhibit for adults only–hey, it was culture!

[2] Thus fulfilling the scripture about turning the heads of the children to the fathers and the heads of the fathers to the children.

[3] She said this while stuffing chocolates into her face in a factory, or so I like to imagine.

[4] It seemed as I read through the advice of the class of 1963 that more of them regretted being too cautious than regretted their recklessness, but that is likely an observation of those who came of age in that era, particularly those with a wealthy, highly educated background who would have been attending Harvard in that year.  In fact, that Harvard class of 1963 probably has a lot in common with the fictional students at Welton preparatory school in 1959 that were featured in Dead Poets Society in which Professor Keating inspired them to flout convention by seizing the day.

[5] “I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”