Vive ut Vivas — Lessons from my ancestors about life

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Family Tree? (Credit: Gerd Altmann)

I’m a pretty straightforward, easy-to-read and uncomplicated kind of a guy. Most think they have figured me out at first sight, and they’re right, 99% of the time. I work in a white-collar world and present an unremarkable presence. I dress with reserve rather than flamboyance, I’ve had a beard for years but I’m no hipster and I’ve never had an earring or dyed my hair (other than a regrettable hair-bleaching experiment in my late-teens).

My one gesture towards rebellion, my little secret until you get to know me (unless we meet when I’m wearing a t-shirt) is my love of tattoos. That in itself is barely remarkable these days, since most people of my generation or younger seem to have at least one about their person.

It all started out as an act of minor rebellion, albeit when I was already an adult not long out of university. I picked a simple black tribal design at a local studio and once it was indelibly etched on my upper arm I kept it hidden from my parents for months. The nonchalance of their reaction when I eventually confessed must have been taken as implied-permission to get more, and the years that followed have seen a gradual increase in the size of my collection of ink. Two nearly full sleeves and a piece across my shoulders (affectionately known as ‘family-owl’) are about the sum of it for now, but I’ll add to the collection in the future if time and money allow.

I’ve always preserved the right and the ability to present a conservative image when the need arises and can cover them up easily with a long-sleeved shirt. I think their existence serves in some way to reflect a lesser-known side of my personality; a creative, expressive and rebellious side that many I encounter in day-to-day life wouldn’t immediately believe exists.

The ‘family-owl’ design also incorporates some latin script; ‘Vive ut Vivas’ is emblazoned in a scroll upon which the owl is perched. I’m conscious of the many hazards associated with having words, lettering or phrases tattooed and the risks that an indelible spelling mistake or poorly phrased expression can present. A friend once had a tattoo done in Thailand; having requested the Sanskrit word for ‘Happiness’ he later discovered it actually read ‘Sensual Love’ (to his considerable joy I might add). For this reason, I generally hold to the opinion that words are for writing, not for tattooing.

In this instance though, I wanted a little of my heritage represented in one of my tattoos and since this phrase is supposedly the family motto on my Mum’s side (if the internet is to be believed) then it seemed an appropriate choice. The literal translation, ‘live that you may live forever’ (again, all-praise the internet) also seemed an appropriate mantra to commit to my skin for the duration of my existence.

Originally, the sentiment behind this expression seemed a fitting ethos by which to live my life; live life to the fullest.

It seemed to read like an encouragement to take the chances, play the odds, seize every opportunity, have one-last drink when others were flagging, slap down the credit card for an impulse purchase; you can’t take money with you, right? Go-for it! The world’s your oyster! Have-at-it!

Of late though, my appreciation and interpretation of the motto has broadened a little. As I’ve aged, and my mind (and waistline) have broadened I now understand a few less obvious and more significant interpretations of the phrase that I’ve attached to it as the years have passed. I’d like to share these with you now.

There are consequences to your actions and these emerge as you live. It seems to me that virtually everything in life has a cause and effect nature, and the results of a decision or action, a kindly or unkindly word or deed can sometimes emerge only years later. Rest assured though, they will emerge over time whether you want them to or not. It’s imperative then to live in acknowledgement that your actions and their effects may last for way longer than you expect.

Live that you can live with the consequences of your actions.

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Emperor Cincinnatus (maybe) — Probably not one of my ancestors but still a pretty interesting guy.

Life ensures that things take time to emerge — I’ve written a separate piece on the topic of time and the things I’ve learned about it which you can read here. My innate impatience for seeing results from my actions quickly and promptly is a direct reaction to this reality. I can look back over my life and see that the consequences, whether positive or negative of things I’ve done have often taken years to come to fruition or bring to bear their full effects.

It’s widely acknowledged that the power of compounding of interest on investments takes years, and the same is true when it comes to the compounding of effects from your actions. A pattern of impulse purchases and reckless spending when you don’t have the money will eventually contribute to financial struggles. The results from a single workout won’t give you the bulging biceps and a rippling six-pack you desire, but a prolonged program of workouts will gradually take you in the right direction. A loving and supportive relationship doesn’t emerge from a single candle-lit dinner or bunch of flowers, but rather as a result of continuous and consistent efforts, concessions and affection shown by both parties towards each other. There are seldom any shortcuts to the best things in life.

Live in a way that’s consistent, congruent and committed to your goals and to who you are.

A curse of my innate impatience is that I’m repeatedly vexed by the time it takes to see results. The aforementioned six-pack still eludes me in spite of my (mostly) committed efforts to eat well and exercise regularly. My efforts to build and grow my coaching business (serving those working through divorce and separation) is firmly still in the ‘hustle and grind’ stage where money, time and sacrifice go largely unrewarded as the deficits in my bank-account and sleep-account grow. Every time I think I’ve figured out the subtle-art of parenting, another challenge will rear its hormone-influenced head.

To achieve goals that are worth achieving takes tenacity, commitment and resolve throughout life.

We need to remember that our brain is hard-wired to keep us alive rather than to ensure we achieve our goals. As such, life’s as much about dealing with the fears and doubts (which our brain willingly serves up to encourage caution) as it is about getting inspired, excited and motivated (which our brain helpfully resists).

Live that you may eventually reap the rewards of your actions.

There is a legacy and lasting consequences to your life. Whether your legacy is a business, a foundation, your creations, your kids, or just the memories carried by those who know (or knew) you, there will be a legacy that outlasts your time on this earth, or the brief interaction you shared with someone.

We all interact with hundreds and thousands of others in the course of our lives, whether that’s in the bus driver who greets us on our daily commute, the barista who prepares our flat-white or the co-worker with whom we likely spend as much time with as we do with our spouse.

Each and every interaction has the potential to leave a legacy, either positive or negative. A cheerful hello to a stranger who’s depressed, anxious or isolated may just be the thing that turns their day and maybe even their life around. Being truly present when you’re speaking with your kid (rather than half-listening while you check your Facebook feed) might be the thing that convinces them that you care about them more than you do about commenting on a picture of your friend’s dog. Acting with dignity, respect and forgiveness during the parting of a relationship may just be the defining factor in each of you and your soon-to-be-ex going on to form healthier, happier and more loving relationships in future.

Each and every action and interaction leaves a legacy, whether enduring or fleeting and in most instances it’s in our own hands just what kind of legacy that will be.

Live that you may be proud of your legacy.

There’s so much pressure these days to do things in a certain way that will deliver the best life possible, the most successful career, the happiest marriage, the most fulfilled existence. I’m reluctant to suggest that my way of doing things is better than anyone else’s. When it comes down to it, we’re all just doing our best with what we’ve got, finding our own way. A miraculous, 100% proven system that someone else may offer is just one more way of achieving the same desired end.

I’ll continue to explore the philosophies and guidance of others, but I don’t have to adopt them at the expense of my own.

Reflecting on my family-motto (if indeed that’s even what it is), I’ve found great encouragement at times from believing that it’s a philosophy or ethos that guided my predecessors through their lives. I’ll continue to use it as one of the guiding tenets of my life for now and the future; if you want to employ it in yours, feel free!

Live and let live.


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