Rhapsody on a Well-Loved Cliche

This happened years ago but David and I still laugh about it.

David was a deacon, a lawyer, and a young Christian who wanted to grow in his usefulness to the Lord. One day he asked to accompany me on my hospital visitation. “I’d like to get more comfortable visiting in the hospitals,” he said. “Sure. Great.”

A good thing for a deacon to do. For any of us to do.

The next morning around 7:30 we met in the medical center parking lot. We greeted each other and I made a couple of suggestions. “The first few patients we see, I’ll introduce you, but don’t say anything. Just pay attention.” Then, we went upstairs.

In 99 percent of the cases, hospital visitation is not rocket science (cliche!). It’s merely a Christian friend calling on another friend. Sometimes it’s big brother ministering to a hurting brother, and often nothing more profound than two old buddies chatting. Normally, my plan was to visit with the person no more than a couple of minutes, and if all was well, to share a verse of scripture (memorized, not read) and lead in a brief prayer of praise and commitment.

After the third or fourth visit, in the stairwell heading upstairs, I said, “David, in the next room, I’ll call on you to pray.” Fine.

A few minutes later as we left the patient’s room, in the hallway he said, “How was that?”

I said, “Well, normally that’s a good thing to pray. But I don’t think that a hospital room when a person is getting ready for major surgery you want to pray ‘Lord, help us to live this day as if it were our last.'”

He said, “Did I say that?” I laughed, “It’s all right. She didn’t seem to mind.”

It’s a cliche’ and not a bad one. The line was first spoken sometime in the decade of A.D. 170-180, thanks to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. (He lived April 26, 121 to March 17, 180. He was a Stoic philosopher and seems to have been the type of ruler Plato had in mind with his concept of “philosopher-kings.”)

The exact quote from Marcus Aurelius: “And thou wilt give thyself relief if thou doest every act of thy life as it were the last.”

A note about cliche’s. They grew to be widely accepted and well-worn figures of speech for good reason: they served a useful purpose.

But as with most generalities, you don’t want to push them too far. An episode of “The Simpsons” bears this out.


Homer Simpson has been reading some self-help book and comes across the line about living each day as though it were our last. He takes it literally.

In the next scene Homer is sitting on the curb sobbing his heart out, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.”

Taken to its obvious lengths, that would be one appropriate reaction to Aurelius’ adage.

Carl Dennis expresses this perfectly in a piece published in The New Yorker (June 7, 2010)….

To live each day as if it might be the last

Is an injunction that Marcus Aurelius

Inscribes in his journal to remind himself

That he too, however privileged, is mortal,

That whatever bounty is destined to reach him

Has reached him already, many times.

But if you take his maxim too literally

And devote your mornings to tinkering with your will,

Your afternoons and evenings to saying farewell

To friends and family, you’ll come to regret it.

Soon your lawyer won’t fit you into his schedule.

Soon your dear ones will hide in a closet

And then your house will slide into disrepair.

If this is my last day, you’ll say to yourself,

Why waste time sealing drafts in the window frames

Or cleaning gutters or patching the driveway?

If you don’t want your heirs to curse the day

You first opened Marcus’ journals,

Take him simply to mean you should find an hour

Each day to pay a debt or forgive one,

Or write a letter of thanks or apology.

No shame in leaving behind some evidence

You were hoping to live beyond the moment.

No shame in a ticket to a concert seven months off,

Or, better yet, two tickets, as if you were hoping

To meet by then someone who’d love to join you,

Two seats near the front so you could catch each note.

Well said, Mr. Dennis. You clearly have preachery gifts, sir.

What saith the Scripture on this subject?

These will relate…

“Lord, teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)

“Redeeming the time, for the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16) This is probably as close to “carpe’ diem” (“seize the day”) as we will find in the Bible.

One would expect that a Bible which speaks of these as the last days would overflow with references to our living each day as our last.

The opposite is the case.

In the Parable of the 10 Virgins, Jesus teaches the disciples that they are to plan for the long haul (there’s a fine old cliche!). His return to bring history to its culmination and humanity to its final accounting could be momentarily, could be soon, but might be in the distant future, as has turned out to be the case.

God’s people through the centuries seem to have missed that point. Far too many have indeed gathered on mountaintops to await Jesus’ Second Arrival while back at home, their bills were unpaid, the kids were hungry, and the roof was leaking. (Matthew 25:1-13)

The best way to “live each day as though it were our last” is to live today to the fullest. Don’t go where you would not want to be found, do not do anything you wouldn’t want to be caught dead doing. (Another fine old cliche. I’ve got a million.)

Plant some flowers. Play with a child. Watch the sunset and sing a psalm of praise to the One responsible. Bundle up and take a walk in the rain and be alone with the Rainmaker.

Write a check to help a struggling servant of God. Tell those you love that you do.

Clean out of the closet any unworthy books and magazines and CDs and videos. Then take them to the dumpster. Do not give them to your library’s book drive so others can be affected by their poison or distracted by their foolishness.

Forgive someone a debt and write them a note saying so. Apologize to someone else, but do that in person if possible.

After all, this is the day the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Marcus Aurelius did not say that. And, all things considered (cliche alert!), it’s a vast improvement over what he did say. (Oh, and it’s found in Psalm 118:24.)

1 thought on “Rhapsody on a Well-Loved Cliche

  1. LOL….so true. It became my motto when my grandmother took it on in all its glory her last six months of life. She was diganoised with terminal cancer and refused treatment, but lived every single day as if it were her last. She told her six children and their mates, her 16 grandchildren, and her one great grandchild everyday that she loved us and how we changed her life. It was six of the hardest, but absolutely the most rewarding of my life. I never live up to the standard she did in living it, but I try to remember and why. Thank you for your blogs and facebook comments. Some days the laughs and thoughts you provoke are the brightest lights in my day. 🙂

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