Seize the Day

The face of a killer: Aaron Alexis (AP)

It was the Roman lyrical poet Horace who coined the Latin phrase carpe diem, which loosely translates to “seize the day.” If you’re like me, though, you probably remember this being the catchphrase of Professor John Keating in the 1989 Robin Williams’ film Dead Poets Society.

Great movie, by the way.

Normally, carpe diem isn’t a phrase that comes to mind very often. And like many of you, I can’t remember the last time I even thought of it. This changed yesterday as I was driving home from work and listening to the news on NPR, though.

The subject was, of course, Monday’s deadly shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard in our nation’s capital. Former Navy reservist and military contractor Aaron Alexis—who apparently had a history of mental illness and run-ins with the law (information that if used correctly may have prevented this tragedy)—walked into the headquarters for Naval Sea Systems Command armed with a shotgun and by the time the crisis ended, he and 12 others were dead.

The radio announcer was sharing information about some of Alexis’ victims and though I was saddened by them all, there were a few that stuck with me and immediately brought to mind carpe diem… at least in a kind of roundabout way.

The first victim I heard about was Arthur Daniels, a 51-year-old man from Southeast Washington who installed office furniture in federal buildings. On Monday, he was working at the Navy Yard and, as we all know, this was the last job he would ever do.

I then heard about John Roger Johnson—an engineer known as “JJ” to his friends and colleagues—who could have retired years ago, but chose to press on because he enjoyed both the work and the people around him. Countless people described how positive he was every single day—always greeting people, smiling and trying to make even the most mundane tasks fun for everyone he encountered.

JJ was 73 years old.

Next it was Frank Kohler—a 50-year-old independent contractor who was at the Navy Yard for a meeting—followed by Kenneth Bernard—an employee who switched from the night shift to the day shift several years ago—and several others whose names escape me.

As It Happened: Mass Shooting at Washington Navy Yard

The chaos in DC during Monday’s attack (Getty Images)

What struck me most about all of these folks was that for each of them, one seemingly ordinary decision resulted in them being shot and killed by Alexis earlier this week. Had these decisions been different—or if circumstances had prevented them from being at the Navy Yard on that fateful day—they may still be alive.

If JJ retired when he had the chance, he wouldn’t have been shot down in cold blood by the mentally disturbed contractor. If Frank’s meeting had been on a different day, he may have been somewhere else… somewhere safe. And if Kenneth stayed on the night shift, he would have been home sleeping when the massacre occurred.

I know this is all about “what ifs”—and I imagine the families and friends of these victims are struggling with these kinds of scenarios and questions right now—but it’s hard not to focus on these things after a tragedy like this. One slight adjustment to a daily routine or one decision made differently could have prevented loved ones from being gunned down, but sadly that didn’t happen. For whatever reason, they made it to the Navy Yard on what seemed like a normal day, never knowing it would end up being their last.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes carpe diem so important.

Death comes to us all eventually. That’s just the way things go and, as some will tell you, it’s a natural part of life. I never really understood that since death represents the end of life, but I know what they’re getting at.

Unfortunately, none of us know when death will come knocking and, as a result, we almost have to expect it at any possible moment. Being alert, careful and cautious is all well-and-good, but even the most careful person can die tragically in a car accident or, as was the case in Washington, an active shooter situation at a workplace.

Do you think those kids and teachers in Sandy Hook had any clue Adam Lanza was coming to murder them that day? Or that the people attending the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado knew James Holmes would be entering the theater to start killing everyone in sight?

Certainly not.

To me, this indicates something fundamental and something we should all practice daily: carpe diem. You never know when your time will come or when you will lose someone you care about, which means you should live every day as if it’s your last.

After all, it could be your last. The important thing is to take advantage of the time you have and to make sure those around you know just how much they mean to you. Granted, this isn’t advice that I have followed very well in the past, but I can say one thing: I’m a huge believer in carpe diem now.

I don’t think any of us can afford to live otherwise, do you?

Posted on September 18, 2013, in Life, Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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