Home On the Maxim "You Only Live Once" and Responsibility

Our civilization has produced a vast collection of phrases, statements, and maxims, that emphasize a flippant and feel-good attitude which praises the individual as the highest achievement and level of order. While this is obviously not the case, the phrases tend to be so effective for their simplicity and poignancy that they tend to strike an agreement amongst commoners and invoke a spiritual somnambulism.

Of these, perhaps the most irresponsible and destructive maxim is "You only live once." This brief utterance suggests to the listener and the speaker something of wantonness and decadence. It is often spoken in the context of pleasureful self-destruction, as in drug abuse or reckless acts of public immaturity. Those things that give brief spasms of joy and amusement but ultimately amount to nothing and tend toward destructive consequences. It is used almost on the whole in an entirely self-centred way, allowing its invoker to imagine themselves as keystones to the universe—to their own private universes in which their mortality signals the cessation of all matter and energy.

The sharp degree of irresponsibility present in adherents of this simple maxim is hard to doubt. These are the people who feed themselves poisoned foods, who obtain massive high definition televisions for their posh living rooms, who get blindly drunk on a regular basis. And this, all for the sake of ego gratification. As usual with things of mob mentality, those who disagree with this outlook and activity are often damned and charged as narrow and petty—as being closed-minded and disrespectful. No surprise, then, that the maxim itself carries the highest order of disrespect in common parlance.

Considered from a philosophical standpoint, one can see, apart from the blatantly humanistic aspect of this individual's creed, touches of the passive nihilism often called 'fatalism'. For the average person, the thought of mortality is brief and unpleasant, indeed, too difficult to dwell upon. Since we're all going to die, we may as well have fun while we live. The individual becomes more passive to the forces moving around them, paradoxically taking everything in stride and harbouring a grudge against the universe that spawned them. Bearing this in mind, temporary gratification is sought—anything to distract the individual from the grim realization that their life, as they forge it, is purposeless. The longer they pursue this road, the deeper is their purposelessness, and the more they must distract and destroy themselves. In failing to see their integration into the universe and tunneling their vision to constant pursuits inspired by the ego, they simply become reduced to dust and bring ruin through their indifference.

With this said, it can also be argued that this phrase can take on a heroic, albeit less popular, interpretation. If one is to realize their station in the universe by acknowledging that death awaits them, to realize their insignificance in the face of innumerable galaxies, then an active approach to being can be taken—one that seizes all things higher and grander than the individual. Most see the "I" as the greatest organizing principle, convinced that they dwell in an entirely subjective universe where everything is false—other minds and individuals cannot be communicated with, and the material plane that they both inhabit and alter through thought and action is strictly a matter of their own interpretation.

To embrace death as a vital element of our being was perhaps cherished by the Romantics, but in our day it is interpreted as a sign of morbidity and psychosis. It is important to know that death is always by our side, and that beyond it we can do nothing in the material plane. We only have one chance to live and act—a brief allotment of time in the universe's machination in which to forge destinies and shape futures. There are many lofty dreams and goals that can be aspired to, much great works to be done that require sweat, blood, and agony. Men who realize what powers we have as humans should always act heroically—in the commanding of armies, the composition of poesy and symphony, the triumphs of bold exploration and dizzying sights of earthly splendour. These are not easy things to do, so it is no surprise that no great acts of this sort have been performed or championed by people—it is laziness and apathy that win over the hearts of the everyman.

If one interprets phrases such as the topical maxim "You only live once" openly, it can be seen that there are a lot of spiritless, denigrating statements of this nature that can be moulded to heroic ways, evolving from untermenschen levels to hint at a far loftier Promethean spirit, where the individual is not an isolated cell with an impermeable membrane but an element from which complex molecules are composed.

The Buddhist precept of living in the moment is not one of senseless and immediate fulfillment of craving. It is quite the opposite: it is the control of senses and the constant awareness of everything as it unfolds. Transcendent knowledge and being are, from this awareness, reached. Surrendering our souls to impulsive, material drives is nothing short of pitiful and weak. You only live once—make use of yourself and interact constructively with the universe.

April 27, 2007

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