God Is Dead.
So goes nineteenth-century German philologist and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous claim. Maybe the forerunner of most Continental philosophy, Georg Hegel, actually said it first, but the death of God movement, or theothanatology—if we want to wax technical—is where an analysis of YOLO begins.
You Only Live Once, for which the acronym YOLO is the much hashtagged slogan of youth culture in our society, is the twenty-first century’s conceptual equivalent of the Latin phrases carpe diem and memento mori. Seizing the moment is essential to what YOLO encapsulates, whilst the expression memento mori, which means “remember that you will die”, carries a kind of inverted correlation. The latter developed with the growth of Christianity, and this reminder was one which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife. Therefore, this appreciation of the inevitability of death was not meant as a call for living in the present, but was instead employed in order to focus one’s attention toward cleansing the soul whilst still of this world.
YOLO, however, is an idea that puts a positive spin on this reminder of one’s own mortality, coupled with an optimistic attitude toward living in the present moment.
Living in the now is that kind of throw-caution-to-the-wind cliché which has seen the abbreviation come under fire in the press due to the apparent connections with the phrase and reckless behaviour. It has also been deemed the most “annoying abbreviation ever”, yet its continued virality and popularity have skyrocketed rather than diminished since it was popularised by rapper Drake in his 2011 song, ‘The Motto’.
YOLO conveys an attitude of spontaneity and impulsivity, which seems a fitting catchword for the youth in a society which is continually shortening attention spans, deepening its dependence on instant gratification of desires and perceptions.
A reduction in the capacities of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which regulates concentration levels, seems a pertinent biological reaction to our instinctive response mechanisms which have been altered in our virtual society’s constant activities: the scrolling through of a news feed, the ever-expanding diversions of our attention to ever-new, easily digestible information, the quick reaction to anything entertaining or amusing, the immediate satisfaction of online shopping, our instantaneous access to downloadable content—all this serves to weaken our ability to hold our concentration in one place for a long time, and as such the acuity of our decision making is affected.
High-level cognitive tasks, such as information processing and decision making, are made in the prefrontal cortex and have surely been affected by the disposable yet perpetual information flow of social media and the internet (the proof of this claim may lie in the abundance of people who clicked the ‘back’ tab on their web browser after determining the length of this article), where YOLO finds its home.
So, whilst memento mori is a term that encourages the sacrifice of worldly pleasures in place of the eternal grace that awaits a purified person in the afterlife (and so has longevity as the central motivation at its core), YOLO is instead about succumbing to instinctive pleasures and instant gratification without consideration of long-term responsibilities and future consequences.
Whilst I don’t advocate YOLO as an excuse for a kind of moral relativism, where morality becomes nonsensical in the light of mortality, (these connotations have seen the concept vilified, and perhaps deservedly so…) I do condone impulsivity in response to decision making—me being a firm believer in our spontaneous response mechanisms and intuition. In cognitive psychology, this idea is called the ‘adaptive consciousness’: decision making by means of mental processes that are inaccessible by introspective awareness or long-term consideration.
Sigmund Freud, one of the founders of Psychoanalysis, argued that following the various processes of the adaptive conscious reflects the idea that much of what the unconscious does is beneficial to the organism. For example, the unconscious’s streamlined processes evidenced by evolution enable the organism to quickly evaluate and respond to patterns in its environment. This has also been explored by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell’s analysis of the adaptive unconscious, drawing on elements of cognitive and behavioural psychology, proposes that the most beneficial decisions can be made within the time it takes to blink.
I think that YOLO falls into alignment with this concept, where the pros and cons of a particular decision are measured; the cons more often than not capitulating to the present moment due to the fact that life is ephemeral, singular and immanent. Long term consequences fall to the wayside as current desires take the reins; the spotlight shining on the now, illuminating the present.
It also draws on elements of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. This is a kind of acceptance of the ephemerality of life which allows the individual to learn to live a life enjoyed sensually, sanctioning him or her to better engage in life as it happens, rather than be caught up in unnecessary metaphysical anxieties.
Furthermore, there are correlations between YOLO and John C. Parkin’s F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way. By removing the importance of our actions and prioritising our wellbeing in a ritualistic determination to succumbing to present desires, YOLO becomes a form of spirituality in itself. This is perhaps why the motto has been criticised for links with reckless behaviour, as it postulates that societal notions of conformity and general conventions are redundant in the light of our meaninglessly short lives. It stands in opposition to what the Powers That Be govern as fundamental. In the past, the axiom that was accepted was the religious ideal of a permanent afterlife.
It’s old news that contemporary culture is an incredibly secular one. The onslaught of a growing atheism in a post-Christian, post-post-modern society has opened a gap in our conscious appreciation of the concept of an afterlife. This, I propose, is where YOLO comes to life, and where God bites the dust.
YOLO effectively denies the Christian belief of the afterworld, repudiates the Buddhist and Hindu notions of reincarnation, refutes the Islamic notions of Jannah and Jahannam. This is because the idea that we only live once means an immediate satisfaction of present desires is paramount. We no longer believe our actions on this plane of existence will reverberate into eternity, into paradise, into forever. Instead, we will glimmer here for just a brief moment and it is in our best interests to illuminate that possibility with whatever we have in our arsenal of our pyrotechnics of animation.
Instead of a belief in the afterlife, our generation holds to its heart a theology of unregenerate souls; a school of thought where the everlasting and the eternal are extinguished by the ephemeral and the fleeting, like fireflies blazing brighter than a thousand suns, where the perfect tense is the present tense.
In the face of the void of oblivion after death, YOLO is an exhortation to action-experience, a mindfulness of our own mortality.
In Christian theology, kenosis is a process in which the self-emptying of one’s own will is necessary for becoming entirely receptive to God’s divine will. Some branches of Christianity believe that God died because he emptied himself by creating the universe, the cosmos, simply by creating creation itself. The immanence of the YOLO phenomenon is one in which I can’t help but draw parallels.
In succumbing to Live Only Once, we must pour out from ourselves, we must wring out every experience available, must saturate our fleeting existence with an ever-un-dying present moment. The demise of the afterlife reinvigorates and re-vitalises our just-mortal existence, revelling in the chaos of the short term, because we won’t be given a second shot. It is a philosophy that seeks to immortalize the individual through a perpetual momentous mantra that fights against the impending annihilation of our memories.
The Godhead is simply our subjective memory in accumulating experience. We are our own Gods if there is no afterlife. Nietzsche asked after we murdered God, must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
Instead of kenosis, my proposition for the new zeitgeist is the conceptualisation of ‘yolosis’: Pour out yourself into the now and fill the void because, well (forgive me), YOLO.
Charles Bliss is a freelance writer and journalist who has lived in Brighton, Norfolk, Spain and Philadelphia.