One Day At a Time
“Take it one day at a time” - that’s a byword among those who have a chronic illness or disease. It also applies, though, to those who are “perfectly” healthy - because one day at a time is the only way to “take it.” It’s a common cliche, but what does the phrase mean? That we shouldn’t make long term plans? But that’s not in our nature as human beings. We have appointments, we have schedules, we have significant dates and holidays. We can’t just “live in the moment” and ignore the future, no matter how uncertain that future may be.
And let’s face it, no one can be certain about the future, because things happen and circumstances change unexpectedly. Phone calls from “nowhere” offering an “opportunity of a lifetime.” Connections we’re unaware of. Missed flights. Even changes we expect can have unexpected twists. Like meteorologists, the further out we go, the harder it is to predict or plan with certainty. And yet, we do plan as if - a key phrase, as if - we’re certain.
So how do we reconcile the need to plan with ‘take it one day at a time’?
There’s another cliche that seems to say the same thing as ‘take it one day at a time’ - ‘seize the day.’ Carpe diem, in Latin. But they’re not the same. ‘Seize the day’ means to grab all the enjoyment one can. It’s rooted in a commitment to physical activity. (‘Enjoyment’ often means indulgence in physical pleasure, but it doesn't have to. It can refer to activities - such as sports or games or competition in a larger sense - that bring pleasure.)
‘Take it one day at a time’ is more about an attitude, how we approach the time of the day. If we understand the attitude the phrase refers to, we can also understand how it does not contradict the need to plan. Indeed, it may complement it, help the process.
‘Take it one day at a time’ means, I think, that each day has its obligations and opportunities, and we must confront them, engage with them, as they come upon us. There are daily rituals, from the mundane to the sublime, from brushing teeth to prayer, for example. We may think that these are just tasks to be gotten out of the way, but actually they help structure the day. Our daily rituals and obligations are also part of taking it one day at a time, because they belong to that particular day.
Nor does the phrase mean we shouldn’t plan or anticipate future events. If there was no Superbowl, it would be foolish for players and coaches to practice, preparing for the big event. And likewise it would be silly to shop and plan and cook in the days before the game if there was no game. But, as the coaches will tell you, that day’s task, that day’s ‘one day at a time’ is the practice. While the practice, or preparation, is a means to an end, it is also an end in itself.
Take it one day at a time means to invest as much energy and focus in that’s day’s activities as one would on a ‘more significant’ day’s activities. Significance is in the mind of the doer. Appreciate the day we have and make the most of it, whether through learning, working, communicating or throwing ball with the kids.
There is a value in the here and now which can be overlooked when the future seems uncertain. The truth is, the future is always uncertain. It’s just that under some circumstances it seems more uncertain. And that’s the challenge: to live with the uncertainty and yet not ‘waste’ the day before us.
As the day begins, perhaps we should ask, what does the day have to offer? Besides the obligations, besides the pre-planned activities, what else can I get from or put into the day. What makes this day unique?
Part of the challenge is to fill the day with positive thoughts of what can be accomplished here and now, not regrets for what might or might not be.
If our attitude is one of gratitude and appreciation, if we find meaning in and make significant our activities, then we’ve truly taken this day one day at a time. And that, G-d Willing, is how we will take the next day, when it comes.
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