As is my tendency, I recently found myself at the shoe store, this time vacillating over a gorgeous pair of black, high-heel, rock-star clogs, a cross between Dutch practicality and Gene Simmonds flamboyancy. I didn't need them. I already own 6 pairs of black shoes and 2 pairs of clogs.
But I could wear them with anything – from office skirts to weekend jeans.
But I certainly didn’t need them...especially at $190.
But I didn’t own anything like these!
I paced back and forth in front of the foot mirror, feeling them out. I took three long strides, stopped, pivoted and marched back. Their clunky weight gave me confidence. They would keep my feet up out of the puddles on rainy winter days. The glint of their silver, motorcycle-jacket-studs winked up at me, flirting, beckoning like a 6-foot Hell’s Angel. They would announce my presence like no other pair of shoes – boldly, loudly, yet with class and power.
I repeated my choreography: step, step, step, pivot; step, step, stop; gaze. I was hypnotized by their sexy strength and the whispered hint of violent potential in their thick platform heels. I awaited a sign from heaven to push me, either towards the cashier, or out the door. I stood still, eyes half-closed in a state of yogic openness, waiting to know what to do.
“You only live once, dude”, the twenty-year old cashier in wrinkled khakis had come out from behind the cash register. He understood my dilemma. I looked at him sideways, his wide, goofy smile and his tousled, sandy hair announced his status as one too young to be taken seriously. I returned the smile - mine more contemplative than enthusiastic - and silently evaluated his input. Besides being an attempt to convince me to contribute to his sales commission, wasn’t his advice just a young person’s way of promoting selfish, irresponsible behavior? “You only live once”. Was that the divine message I was waiting for? I chuckled to myself, breaking the reverie with my trusty standby cynicism. Maybe my personal sales associate uses this philosophy when he wants to stay out late with his friends on a school night or eat the last piece of his roommate’s birthday cake. It can’t possibly apply to me - steady, trusty, reliable old me. I am not impetuous, not a slave to my passions, not prone to purchase high-end, unnecessary, kick-ass attire on a whim. YOLO – the acronym for those four simple words - seems a shallow shorthand of an excuse to live a life of gluttony or walk all over people (something these shoes would easily allow me to do! But that’s beside the point!). My analytical side wagged its finger at me, reminding me that the YOLO attitude was a cop-out, a free pass to brush aside responsibility and “do whatever I want.”
I scoffed at the idea. If I just did whatever I wanted all of the time, bills would go unpaid, children would go hungry and grass would grow 3 feet tall in my front yard.
I would eat dessert first.
I would wear fancy underwear every day.
The possibilities started to multiply in my head. A small swarm buzzed, gathering as one, and erupted: I would stop shaving my armpits. I would sleep until noon. I would paint the house orange. I would curl up in the corner armchair with a fuzzy blanket and a good book every Sunday morning instead of enduring a sore butt by reading the paper in one of the stiff-backed chairs around our dining room table. Heck, if I did whatever I wanted, I would constantly be….happy. Like a mischievous mole burrowing just beneath the surface, this idea made my skin itch. I stood there, dumb at the simplicity, suspicious, yet kind of blown away.
Really, I asked myself, if I really did whatever I wanted, would I want the bills to go unpaid? No, that is why I have automated bill-pay for all of my monthly services. Would I want my kids to go hungry? Of course not, but that was a moot point, since teenagers are impossible to starve. And what is wrong with three-foot tall grass in the front yard? It’s all just a matter of taste. Someday it will be all the rage.
The sales clerk asked me a solicitous question, trying to engage me again in the matter of the shoes, but I didn’t hear. I was oblivious to the immediate scene. My ears were filled with the cloudy humming of my brain working through a new idea. I sat down, further exploring the implications of “YOLO.”
It is true that we only have one time on this earth, one life to live, one chance at each experience. Every experience involves decisions. Every decision can only be made once, and then that opportunity is gone. Another similar opportunity may surface, but never again in exactly the same way. It is a unique moment in time, one which will never be recreated.
Something told me to pay particular attention to this train of thought, because, unlike most people, I know that my life is limited. Of course we all “know” that we will die someday, and nobody can predict exactly when. But I have evidence. I have been reminded time and time again that my time is short. The oncologist reads my scan results and notes that this is the expected course of the disease. Every chemical treatment, every condoling word, every failed attempt to control the pesky tumors living it up in my lung tissue, cumulate into a neon flashing sign announcing my unquestionably short future. Science and society continue to conspire to prepare me for the “inevitable” – an untimely death, a shorter-than average lifespan, woe and loss.
Regardless of whether or not I buy it, the message is there. How fitting then, that YOLO should be an important part of that reality. The little things that make you happy, like silky lingerie and hairy pits, can hardly be held against someone who doesn’t have much time left on this earth. But why stop there? Why can’t everyone behave in a way that allows them to enjoy every moment? And contrary to its first impression as an impetuous, self-serving mantra, YOLO might be taken seriously, applied to the bigger picture, and used for the greater good. To live as if every decision is yours to make and every minute is a unique opportunity is to improve one’s own state, and therefore the overall state of human kind.
After more than three years of dealing with cancer, I think it is time that I take this armchair philosophy seriously. What if I truly knew that I would be dead in 2 months? What would I be doing right now? How would I want to spend that time? My gut answer involves adventurous, forbidden undertakings involving new people, exotic places and few rules. I can’t imagine denying someone their dying wish. But does only having one -possibly short - life make it okay to live it selfishly, without regard to how actions affect other people? Of course not. The reality is that we all have just one life, and we do not know how much time we have. But heaven forbid we continue to do things that we don’t want to do.
Where is the benefit to anyone if we continue living lives full of rigid expectations, what we should be doing instead of what we actually want to be doing? Maybe our children won’t have as big of a trust fund. Maybe our parents will frown in consternation. Other people may not understand our decision to abandon a former life-defining characteristic in favor of something that, on the surface, doesn’t offer the same advantages. Why be a tax analyst if what you really want to be is a chef? Why work full time if you can afford to work part time and spend the afternoons painting?
Why are we here in the first place? An age-old question that has been far over-analyzed for far too long. We are here simply to enjoy the gift of life that we were lucky enough to receive. Our very presence in this world is the result of a roll of the biological dice. What better way to honor those happy circumstances than by enjoying it as thoroughly as we can?
At its core, YOLO is a simple inspirational reminder, but more important, it is a guide, especially for the big decisions. The YOLO filter should be applied carefully to ensure that the essence of the message is honored without diluting it into pointless debauchery. When faced with a tough decision, start with the belief that living for your own pleasure and happiness is a valid goal. Then, considering the fact that you live with other people that you care about, in society, in work-groups, and in families, ask yourself these questions:
Does it take something away from others?
Does it cause you pain, remorse or regret?
Does it give you permission to do something habitually that is bad for you?
If you can answer no to all of the above criteria, continue.
Does it bring you happiness, fulfillment, or positive feelings? Do it.
Does it satisfy a deep desire or curiosity? Do it.
The YOLO approach values feeling good. Invoke it when eating the last slice of cake, but also when saving the last slice for your sweetie. They both feel great!
My long introspective trip to the shoe store caused me to revisit my prior judgment of the curt, abbreviated bit of pop-psychology contained within YOLO. I have reappraised the implied directive. It shimmers differently in the fading light of a setting sun. I no longer see the selfish justification of overindulgence. The immediate prize of another beer, another sexual conquest, another pair of shoes are all well and good, but YOLO should not be trivialized with the label of free-wheeling lawlessness. The message carries weight.
YOLO offers structure to the confusing, conflicting map of life we all have to navigate. Most of us proceed down whatever road we find ourselves on. Most likely, it is the road our parents placed us on when we were only infants. They gently herded us along as we toddled wobbly in our first diapered steps. Mom and dad guarded us from distracting side roads, correcting our progress throughout our youth with loving nudges, serving as human bumpers, arms outstretched with well-meaning protectiveness. Our families shepherded us into adulthood along that road. Perhaps it is a smooth and familiar path, passing by beautiful landscapes with interesting people. It may be sufficient. It may be safe. It may be easy.
Regardless, some of us want to see the rest of the map.
I am not dying slowly, I am living quickly. Every moment is compounded into a moment of joy fully realized. As I experience life on fast forward, my voice may sound comically high-pitched, my actions may appear choppy and the flow of my life may seem erratic or disjointed to those observing from the safe distance of longevity. I am cramming the joy and love of a lifetime into half the time. I am searching out all of the adventure, the emotion, the laughter and the sensuality of a life 20 years longer.
I don’t predict the future. No one knows when they will go, nor how. I just know what the statistics say – and I don’t believe them. I plan on living long. More importantly, I plan on living large. You only live once, so I’m gonna make it one to remember! I don’t have time to passively wait and see where the path I am currently on will take me: I have to get to where I want to go before I run out of gas. That path merits shoes made for a rock-star. YOLO Dude!