While the actual phrase “YOLO” might be new, the culture that it supports is not. It represents the “carpe diem” ideal that “life is short” and that “this too shall pass.” It highlights the “carpe diem” fixation with temporality — the transience of life, the ever-slipping grains in the hourglass. Hell, it’s even echoed in Shakespeare: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene V). The immediacy of the present moment isn’t new; it’s the pacing that’s new.
A human life has never lasted so long nor seemed so short. Mass media outlets have unified the world and brought each country into contact with almost every other — social media platforms have knit each individual life into an intimate web of communication; increased exposure and communication have drawn the kingdoms of the world into a global community.
We have atlases at our fingertips, encyclopedias in our pockets and screens tattooed in our minds. Not only are we now captured by the immediacy of the present moment — we also get lost in the vast universality to which we are increasingly exposed. We are torn between the global community and ourselves. We are simultaneously individual and universal.
And now, carpe diem has shifted. It no longer means that every opportunity has a shelf time; it’s a fiery anthem to live with a vengeance. And I’m not talking about free-flying party culture, but every pocket of campus society that has been gripped. It’s everywhere — pumping through the bass speakers at every frat party and echoing through the silence of every over-packed library.
“YOLO” has colored our generation with desperation to not only live the present moment, but also to consume it. We want to take our power to use every drop we can scrounge up, to never waste a single second and to leave our imprints on the world. We want to boom with the power of every preceding generation combined. And who can blame us — who doesn’t want to be noticed?
But the problem with the consuming the moment is that it’s so easy to forget the sprawling grey backdrop on which each moment sits. We examine closeups of human life — news reports of particular crimes or people; photographs of individual people at individual moments talking about individual aspects of their lives; articles about single conversations or sights — and allow these snapshots to color our holistic perspectives.
But what about the rest of it? Sometimes, striking the balance between the grand scheme and the minute details is a tricky one. It’s so easy to zoom in on the closeup and to study the snapshot — but every closeup belongs to a full portrait, and every snapshot is only a flicker in a long stream of film.
To capture a snapshot is either art or luck; to be inspired by a snapshot is a gift, but to absorb it is a challenge — and to appropriately locate it within a grander context is a skill. Just as planning the grand scheme, getting lost in the beautiful vastness of endless possibilities, causes us to forget the details, focusing too much on the details blinds us to the overarching themes of situations.
No, making bad decisions at the frat party might not ruin your life, but it might have some dire consequences. Yes, the upcoming exam might be important, but odds are, it will not ruin your entire life. Yes, the world has a lot of issues, but the apocalypse probably isn’t imminent and global problems take a lot of time to solve.
Learn to distance the closeup — to find a beautiful detail, to study and be inspired by it, but then, step back and locate it within the millions of other moments you will see, feel, remember, and imagine. Don’t focus too much on the individual footsteps. After all, we are taking blind steps, wandering along a path we can’t see, chained to the mysterious conveyor belt of time.
Our paths are, at best, an ever-growing accumulation of individual footfalls — innumerable and blurred —that we are making without certainty, armed only with the hope that they are gradually taking us somewhere we want to be. Think about every individual step you take — the thousands of decisions and YOLO moments — and think: how can you possibly hope to place every trembling foot perfectly?
Life is not defined by a single moment, nor is it a single, indistinguishable mass. It is a collection of moments, each weighted with and colored by each of its neighboring moments. The key is to neither ignore nor consume every individual moment —to absorb every moment, coupled with and heightened by every other, and become a seamless conglomeration of snapshots and film.
Only when we learn to not only define beautiful moments, but also weave them together — to shift our focuses between the details and the entirety — will we be able to approach the perspective that encompasses immediacy and longevity, the present and the future.
A culture that simultaneously fixates on the immediate and the minute, and exposes us to the global and the universal, demands that we be open to both: losing sight of neither the grand nor the trivial, forgetting neither the good nor the bad, ever-watchful for the little things, but always remembering how they fit into the big one.