The healthy version of YOLO
That looming darkness, that terrifying curtain closing from which none have come back for an encore.
We’ve been running from and fighting against it from the beginning.
But no matter how far we run and how hard we fight, we know there’s no escape.
And so we say, in so many words and with no small degree of fear, “Make it count.”
The first recorded version of the sentiment came from the ancient Roman poet Horace in 23 BC: “Carpe diem.”
Seize the day. Enjoy the moment, for it will not last.
The Hebrews had their own version of it: ואם לא עכשיו,אז מתי. Translation: “If not now, then when?”
In his 1774 play Clavigo Johan Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “One lives but once in the world…”
The title of an 1855 waltz by Johann Strauss II was the first official use of the phrase that is so popular with the youth of today: “You Only Live Once!”
The acronym of the phrase, “YOLO,” has become a staple of youth culture. You see it in music, television, merchandise, graffiti, tattoos, hashtags.
No sentiment can be simultaneously more sobering and motivating, frightening and inspiring.
But what does it actually mean? How does one truly live it to the fullest?
I’ve analyzed it and found three common styles of it — all of which are unhealthy counterfeits.
None of these styles are entirely bad. But all of them tend toward their own unique flavor of suffering.
By understanding the counterfeits, we can find the healthy, balanced version of YOLO to maximize our peace, wellbeing, happiness, and impact.
YOLO Style #1: The Pleasure-Seeking Hedonist
In today’s culture, this style is the most common by far. The Hedonist is about maximizing sensual pleasure.
For some, this takes the form of merely playing and partying a lot. Good food, good friends, good times. Wine, music, dancing, toys, experiences. At the extremes, it devolves into addictive substances and behaviors: pornography, sex, gambling, drugs.
The suffering of this style is its grasping and clinging for that which does not last, and which can give no ultimate satisfaction, peace, or happiness.
(Incidentally, this is precisely what the Buddha observed that catalyzed his search for truth. He grew up a prince, where the entire court spent their days in hedonism. He became disillusioned, left the court, and gave everything up to find truth.)
Buddhism gives us a vivid image of the hedonist: the “hungry ghost.”
Hungry ghosts are pictured as pitiable creatures with huge, empty stomachs and tiny mouths and thin necks through which food cannot pass.
Thus, their unrelenting hunger is insatiable. No matter how obsessively they grasp for satisfaction, it always lies beyond their reach.
YOLO Style #2: The Ambitious Achiever
The Ambitious Achiever is the driven, confident Type A personality. He gets good grades, goes to the best, most prestigious schools, gets the best jobs with the best companies. He climbs the corporate ladder.
He’s relentless in his quest to be the best, to achieve and acquire the most. He reads Success magazine and attends personal development seminars frequently. He is fiercely competitive and values credentials and titles. He wants fame and fortune.
The suffering of this style is its tendency toward greed and selfishness. If the Achiever serves, it’s only to prop up his ego and add another mark of distinction to his achievements (noblesse oblige).
On his death bed the Achiever clutches his trophies while lamenting their utter emptiness.
YOLO Style #3: The Sacrificial Puritan
The Sacrificial Puritan is serious, somber, and sober. He lives from duty and obligation.
One of the worst sins to this type is wasting time. Time is a precious gift from God to be used solemnly and deliberate. An accounting will be made. Fear God and wear out your life in His service. Work while you may, for the hour of death approaches.
To this type, leisure is a necessary evil at best. As one Puritan wrote, “Recreation belongs not to rest, but to labor, and it is used that men may by it be made more fit to labor.”
The suffering of this style is its fear and anxiety. It’s a striving for perfection, underlying which is shame, a fear of punishment, a severe lack of acceptance of one’s humanity, weaknesses, and foibles.
The healthy, balanced version of YOLO
Once we see these counterfeits clearly, we extrapolate their healthy aspects and reject their unhealthy aspects to find balance, peace, and wellbeing.
The healthy version of YOLO is what I’ll call the “Mindful Human.” The Mindful Human is simple, grounded, relaxed, at home with himself.
His version of maximizing each moment is slowing down, breathing, being present, living in a perpetual state of wonder and grace.
The Mindful Human does not fight against the terror of impermanence and death, but rather faces them, clear-eyed and courageous.
He has also learned to completely accept and be at peace with his humanity. He doesn’t obsess over changing or fixing himself. He is comfortable in his own skin. As the seventh century Zen master Seng-tsan said,
“True freedom is being without anxiety about imperfection.”
Yet in his acceptance, he is not delusional. He has dived deep into his shadow and knows himself in and out. He sees the worst in himself clearly. He does not justify or rationalize.
Because he knows who he is — and who he isn’t — he lives his purpose with clarity and confidence.
He doesn’t rush around trying to save the world; he knows it’s already been saved and that everything is perfect just as it is. He lives to alleviate the suffering of others, but does so without anxiety.
In fact, the fundamental question that drives his YOLO mindset and provides the standard by which he gauges how to best use his time is this: What am I doing to add to or subtract from the aggregate of human suffering?
And this starts, of course, with his own suffering.
Knowing the grasping and clinging of hedonism create suffering, he is mindful of his attachment to sensual pleasure — yet still fully enjoys pleasure.
Knowing the greed and selfishness of worldly achievement create suffering, he mindfully remains simple and humble — yet still seeks to make a difference in the world.
Knowing the fear and anxiety of striving for perfection create suffering, he mindfully accepts his humanity — yet does not justify his behavior.
He discards the suffering and finds the joy in each style of YOLO and lives a life of wonder, beauty, peace, abundance, joy, and fulfillment.
Death is a certainty. But suffering is a choice. By embracing the healthy, mindful version of YOLO, we alleviate our suffering and that of others.
The only thing we can do about death is to live life to the fullest in every moment.