"YOLO": You Only Live Once or You Oughta Look Out?

Before I even start talking about the infamous acronym popularized by Canadian rapper Drake's song "The Motto", you have to watch this music video for the song "YOLO" (2013) by the comedy musical group The Lonely Island, featuring Adam Levine and Kendrick Lamar.

Did you watch it? No, you have to watch it first. Go watch it.

Okay, now that you've watched it, I hope you were as entertained as I was. The song was first released on an episode of Saturday Night Live last year, and provides an impressive and important counterpoint to the popular meaning of the phrase "You only live once". Most often, the phrase is used to justify or excuse dangerous, irresponsible, or immature behavior. The idea is that, since we only have one chance to experience everything in this world, we are completely justified in any sort of reckless behavior we may choose to indulge in. As long as we are gaining new experiences, it makes no difference whether these experiences have positive or negative effects on the totality of one's life. This motto is closely linked to the idea of "living without regrets", which most people understand to mean doing whatever one would like and not regretting doing it, regardless of what negative effects our choices might have on our lives. Although these mottoes purport to believe that "you only live once", in practice they actually deny the reality of human mortality and mutability, and naively assume that nothing we undergo has the power to destroy or diminish us in any way, shape, or form. This leads to a false belief about what it means to be a human person, which leads to choices that damage us both physically and spiritually. Both YOLO and "No regrets" have been manipulated by our culture's adolescent mentality to justify infantile behavior and a life philosophy of instant gratification, which have been incredibly damaging to the youth of our culture and, hence, to the future of culture itself.

The Lonely Island, well known for their parodic themes in all of their music, latch on to this infantile idea of YOLO and turn it on its head. Instead of justifying reckless and immature behavior, "YOLO" encourages people to take seriously the fact that we really do have only one life to live, and that the choices we make in this life will have a lasting impact on how this life turns out. To that end, The Lonely Island advises (humorously, of course) that we do everything within our power to protect and extend that life by avoiding dangerous behaviors, looking to our financial future, and basically avoiding any life experience whatsoever. The obsessive nature of this kind of self-preservation eventually devolves, in the video, into phobias, neuroses, and paranoia. The one life we have to live is constantly threatened by death and nothingness. Rather than supporting the recklessness that denies the mortality of the human person, this opposing idea of "you only live once" sees human existence as a one-time, fragile, ultimately meaningless thing that has no life or import beyond the temporal confines of the living body. The physical death of the body is seen as the end of all human activity and the end of our opportunities to gather up any enjoyment for ourselves; yet, in the process of this desperate struggle to store up joys, the joy of life is altogether sucked away. What The Lonely Island expresses in a humorous way is another unfortunate misconception about the human person as inexorably degenerating into nothingness. As with the misconception of immortality, the misconception of nothingness leads to errors in judgement about human life that has damaging effects on us both physically and spiritually.

What we're missing out on in both of these polarizing viewpoints is the pilgrim nature of the human person. Yes, in some ways we are poised between being and nothingness, but nothingness is not inexorable by any means and eternal being is far from assured. The frantic clawing for security in wealth, career, health, or any other area of life is a cover for the deep-seated despair in our lives that believes there is no way to escape the devastation of nothingness, but is desperate to hold it off for as long as possible. The reckless YOLO experience that is heedless of personal danger is guilty of another kind of sin, that of presumption, and a particularly Lutheran presumption at that. Luther believed that our faith in Christ saved us, and our personal acts, regardless of their moral merit or demerit, had no bearing whatsoever on our ultimate fate. In this sense, for Luther, after baptism and the solemn profession of faith in Christ, you are free to do whatever you want. In the same way, the YOLO lifestyle presumes that eternal being has already been bestowed on us and that personal actions are inconsequential to who we ultimately become or to how our actions effect others. Both ways of "only living once" are narrow and selfish, denying the reality of humanity and maintaining a staunch individualism that denies the intrinsic value of the other, as well.

The true way to live once for all requires us to find a mean between these two radical and false views of the human person and its place in the world. We must reaffirm the fact that our existence is a true good, that we were created out of love, and that all things that are set in motion or put into being are meant to stay in motion or in being. We are meant to be, really and truly. The first moment of our existence in the womb of our mothers propelled us forward into being, and we perpetually gravitate towards the Source of all being by nature. We are meant to continue in existence, and this reality must give us, first, the hope and, second, the courage to live our lives to the fullest, to seek after the good in all things, and to fully actualize all the potentialities of our being. This is the answer to the desperate despair of the paranoid neurotic within all of us that is desperate to build a fortress around itself in an attempt to cheat death: hope and courage. At the same time, we must combat the presumption that eternal being is already within our grasp. As long as we exist in this world, nothingness is still a reality for us. It is not inexorable and it by no means has an equal pull on us with the Source of our being. However, we always have the ability to make a free choice for nothingness rather than being. We can choose to deny our nature and aim ourselves towards nothing. This is always within our power. Because of this, we must be on our guard and act with prudence in all our decisions, making informed and wise choices for our good. In this, as well, we are required to hope that, in accordance with our choices for being, we may be granted that eternal being we desire from the core of our very selves.

Yes, it is true that we only live once. But what we decide to do with this one life is of the utmost importance. Courage, prudence, hope: these are the key ingredients for living life to the fullest. We must have the courage to go out into the world and make our mark, to use our talents as best we can, and, through our interactions with others and the experiences we accrue, to become the best person we can possibly be. This is an enormous task and requires great courage. But courage alone is foolhardy; it must be tempered by prudence. We must make choices every moment of our lives, and these choices will affect us in every imaginable way. We must be discerning so that we can make choices for our good, choices that continue to propel us toward being, and avoid those choices that will whittle us away to nothing. Prudence is required to temper courage and direct our lives to their ultimate ends. And, before everything and after, we must hope. Without hope, we cannot be courageous. Without hope, prudence is a false veneer. Hope is necessary to drive us forward and stir in us the fires of ingenuity, passion, creativity, and redemption.

So, YOLO? Yes, YOLO. But, as in all things, it's a matter of quality over quantity. You only live once, so you had better make this the best life you could possibly live.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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