It stands for “You Only Live Once.”
It was a motto for the millennial and younger generations, though now it has become passé through overuse. If you’re over 40 and have not heard YOLO, think “carpe diem” – seize the day.
YOLO had its brief moment in the sun in late 2011 and early 2012 as one of those barometers of the cultural zeitgeist, a Twitter hashtag. It was typically used to call attention to an activity that is exciting or dangerous:
- “Driving 100 mph while texting #YOLO”
- “Consuming more alcohol than I ever imagined #YOLO”
- “Shooting bottle rockets at a bear #YOLO”
But the hashtag wasn’t just used for hedonistic craziness. It was also used for announce endurance-stretching goals or to proclaim accomplishments of which an individual is justifiably proud
- “I’m starting the novel in a month challenge #YOLO”
- “Finished my first ever marathon #YOLO”
- “I’m trying out for American Idol, and I don’t care what anyone says #YOLO”
Hedonism and accomplishment. These are the two responses to the fleeting awareness of our own mortality.
Qohelet, after declaring all things meaningless, declares that he will seize the day. He will experience the benefits of pleasure and of accomplishment. YOLO.
What’s interesting about Qohelet’s quest is that twice in this passage (v2 and again v9), he insists that he maintained his wisdom. In other words, he gave himself over to all these pursuits, and yet internally he maintained a critical distance, an evaluative posture. God gave him the grace to not be absorbed and lost in pleasure and work. He kept his wits about him.
Curiously, pleasure only gets two verses:
I said of laughter ‘It is mad’ and of pleasure ‘What is the use of it?’ I searched with my whole heart how to cheer my body with wine – my heart still guiding me with wisdom – and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. (Ecclesiastes 2:2-3)
Wine and partying. Giving himself over to unfettered pleasure. Absolute hedonism. This has been a pursuit that has been celebrated by subcultures in America for decades. Think back to the sixties and the decadence of the happenings (not the early sixties performance-art events, but rather the drunken gatherings of the late sixties). Think of the seventies and Studio 54, . Every few years a new poster child for unfettered hedonism comes along and occupies the stage of popular fascination until they fade away or destroy themselves.
This year’s model is Ke$ha. She is an amazonian rocker who pens catchy, singable tunes with a driving beat. Most of her songs celebrate an aggressive, take-no-flak, partying attitude. She sings of waking up and rinsing her mouth with Jack Daniels. YOLO. She gave us the lyrics “I feel your heart beat to the beat of the drum/Oh what a shame that you came here with someone/so while you’re here in my arms/Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young.” In the imaginative party world of Ke$ha’s songs, the dance floor is glitter-strewn and steamy, and people have a habit of losing their clothes. YOLO. She keeps a necklace of teeth. You see, she made an offhand comment about wanting such a necklace, and her fans started sending her their teeth. YOLO.
Every so often, one of these hard partying figures actually survives into old age. I remember the breathless hype that greeted Keith Richards’ autobiography. Here truly was a man who has “seen it all and done it all” – every type of drugs, every imaginable debauchery. This is, after all, the guy who snorted the ashes of his cremated father. YOLO, mate.
But these stories are but a mask to a deeper numbness. They hide a hole in life. They don’t tell you about the despair that settles in. They don’t tell you about the wrestling with darkness, wrath, and bafflement in the back rooms. They don’t tell you about the horrid drunken trips, when the question inevitably arises “this is all I’ve lived for?”
Several years ago, Cincinnati played host to a series of drawings by John Lennon. They were doodles, really. Cartoonish drawings that were playful flights of the imagination. My friend, Carmen Fowler was in town to preach at our church. One of our church elders and I were giving her a tour of the city, so we dropped by the exhibit. As we toured the gallery, we came across one drawing – Lennon had drawn himself with wide open eyes. He was pointing to a large black circle. The inscription on the piece was “The hole of my life flashed before my eyes.” A cute pun. But Carmen immediately saw something else. “We know what that hole is,” she said, “that’s the hole that comes from a life lived without Christ.” A black hole. That’s ultimately that hedonism gets us. Yeah, YOLO, indeed.
Or take the film Garden State. The hero, Andrew Largeman, has returned home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. He’s invited to a party hosted by an old friend who invented “noiseless Velcro” and sold the patent for millions of dollars. When Largeman asks his friend what he’s doing now, the friend replies, “Nothing…Nothing. I’ve never been so bored in my whole life.” And then he quickly changes the subject, asking for a joint. The next scene is an extended party scene of intoxication and sexually charged drug use, while Largeman sits numbly on the couch. And there’s the darkness. All that hedonism is just covering up a hole. A deep, black hole. YOLO.
That’s what Qohelet has determined to face in his search. He takes us there too. His next step is accomplishment, which we’ll tackle in the next installment.