For some of us, watching Professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society stand on his desk and inspire his students by finding their inner “barbaric yawp” and seizing the day was a transformative moment. We went on on to make the make the most of our lives, and some of us even went to become English teachers who would also have their students rip out pages of their text books if school budgets would let us (it loses the effect if students receive books with the pages already gone). Some, however, are inspired by rapper Drake who exalts the motto “YOLO”– a hedonistic cry to do whatever the hell you want without regard for other’s feelings. These two disparate ideas of “you only live once” often collide with messy results; what does it mean to live life to its fullest without making life lesser for someone else?
We have enough self-help books, episodes of Oprah, and inspiring movies such as The Bucket List, to teach us all about the merits of taking risks and embracing Carpe Diem. We know that the only way to grow is to challenge ourselves and push our boundaries. I teach my students to say “YES!” to new opportunities even if they don’t think they’ll like them. Who knows what those opportunities will lead to? It could mean meeting new friends, contacts, discovering new interests, or leading to greater opportunities. They could also discover they are really NOT into it, but still learn how to work with others and narrow down their interests. Everything has value.
However, the flip side of only living once is that also only live with ourselves. YOLO is often used as a hall pass from doing the right thing because something feels good that moment. It gives license to being impulsive; it promotes a lack of forethought. In living once we don’t get a do-over; we have to live with the consequences. Why not make those consequences good? Why not make our one life be for the betterment of others? We live in a world where selfishness seems to be king, why pay court to it?
Because we all have to deal with the selfishness and actions of others, we have to respond to it. This is the hidden side of YOLO– how we react to negativity from others and life. Everyone has experienced someone saying something to them that is so outrageous and rude that we end up stewing over it for days, sometimes years. This builds up into negative self-talk and results in feelings of frustration and anger. We only live once, and do we want to spend our one life feeling this way? This is my biggest struggle; I remember every negative thing said to me and I let them fester in my mind by feeding and nurturing them. One day, after working myself up over a person who is consistently rude and revels in it, I had the epiphany that the person is really immature. Why, I asked, was I spending a good portion of my time thinking about someone who is immature and giving credence to what she says? Do I really want to give my inner life to that person? Now I try to monitor my thinking to focus on people who are positive in my life or problems that I can actually fix. I don’t have to spend my one life as a slave to someone who couldn’t care less.
So, YOLO! How are you going to spend it?