My sister is among the many, many young people currently obsessed with the phrase, “YOLO”: that’s “you only live once,” if you’re not hip to the lingo. It’s essentially the equivalent of “carpe diem,” one of the most popularly tattooed sayings, in my estimation. I however find the acronym, and its meaning, which seems to me to mainly be an excuse for stupid behavior, annoying. Yes, it’s certainly true that life is short, but the phrase is trite; I hate to even bring this newest fad into my literature column. But despite all that, I couldn’t help but think of “YOLO” when I read “Nothing Twice,” by Wislawa Szymborska. After all, the poem is about having only one life to live, and the ceaselessness of time.
Elaborating on the poem’s first line and title, Szymborska writes: “In consequence, the sorry fact is/That we arrive here improvised/And leave without the chance to practice” (2-4). I love these lines, because I feel that they are completely accurate, and comical in their expression. We spend all our lives trying to figure out who we are and what we’re doing, and by the time we start to get a handle on things, it’s all over. We don’t get to continue on with our newly-honed skills; rather, we must face our end. As the poet writes, “Even if there is no one dumber…you can’t repeat the class in summer:/The course is only offered once” (5, 7-8). We get one chance, and one chance only.
Szymborska argues that each day is a new adventure, a new opportunity. She observes:
No day copies yesterday,
No two nights will teach what bliss is
In precisely the same way,
With precisely the same kisses. (9-12)
No two days (or nights, as the writer states) are exactly the same. Even if days are similar, they can never perfectly imitate each other. Therefore we are in a constant state of change. Szymborska expands on this point in the next two stanzas. She uses the example of a person’s feelings toward a lover to illustrate her opinion. In the first of the two stanzas, she notes how sometimes just the mention of our significant other’s name can make us light up:
One day, perhaps some idle tongue
Mentions your name by accident:
I feel as if a rose were flung
Into the room, all hue and scent. (13-16)
At any particularly happy point in a relationship, anything to do with the person in our lives makes us feel giddy. However, as the poet is quick to demonstrate, these ecstatic feelings are often very up and down: “The next day, though you’re here with me,/I can’t help looking at the clock” (17-18). Circumstances can change in an instant, making us tire of the person we’re with. Because time never stops, our feelings can alter; we are never frozen in one moment. And though this tends to frighten people, Szymborska offers an enlightened perspective on the matter:
Why do we treat the fleeting day
With so much needless fear and sorrow?
It’s in its nature not to stay:
Today is always gone tomorrow. (21-24)
The anxiety we feel about time’s movement is “needless”; it’s simply natural for us to move forward. If we didn’t, we’d probably feel even more anxious. And on this note, Szymborska concludes the poem. She asserts that humans will always prefer “to seek accord beneath our star,/Although we’re different (we concur)/Just as two drops of water are” (26-28). We prefer to get through the rough patches, even if we have our differences with others. The simile of the water drops skillfully conveys how people can be simultaneously alike and different. No two people or water drops can be exactly the same, but the important thing in life, no matter how short it is, is that we connect with others.