Words to live by

February 19, 2011

I’ve always liked the idea of mottos. There’s just something appealing about distilling all you believe in, and strive for, into a few words that serve as both comfort and compass.

But the actual distillation is hard. There was a time I was actively seeking what would be “my motto.” I leafed through old books, I scrutinized famous people’s mottos, I collected as many foreign phrases as I could. I was on a freakin’ quest.

On a quest!


Until the day, a long time later, that I stumbled across the Latin phrase “De profundis,” which translates as, “out of the depths.” Although I’d found it by accident, it resonated with me more than any other mottos I’d sought out. I read it, and saw so much in it.

Out of the depths… of hardship, into triumph.

Out of the depths… of my heart, the words and stories so important to me.

Out of the depths… of the sea, playing off my love for water.

I found out later it’s the first line of a psalm that goes roughly, “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord. Hear my voice.” That’s nice too, and it’s another meaning that I’ve packed into the phrase, but it’s not the only meaning for me.

The haka

In a similar vein, I’ve become rather fond of the first line of one of the All Blacks’ hakas: “Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora.” “I die, I die, I live, I live.” Obviously, the All Blacks and I are going to view the phrase differently. To me, it speaks of unyielding perseverance. “I die… yet still I live.” Even in the bleakest moment, I live. No matter what, no matter what obstacles are thrown at me, I live.

Meaning, I realize, depends to a large extent on what you bring to the table. Hence a phrase like “Carpe diem!”/”Seize the day!” can get some people raring for action while leaving others cold. This is particularly true of mottos and mantras, which are supposed to encapsulate the very meaning of what’s important to you.

Which would mean that there are no “wrong” mottos, not if they feel right to you. So do you have one? It doesn’t have to be conventional. It doesn’t have to belong in one of those  “7 Habits of Highly Effective/Awesome/Organized/Inspired/Whatever People” books (though it’s fine if it does). It doesn’t have to be catchy or pithy (though I like a certain amount of  zing to it).  

The words you live by just have to fit your life, hopes, and beliefs. That’s all.




  1. I collect quotes and pull them out as needed. A few of my favorites:

    The what is, is
    In uncertainty, lies all possibility
    When you know WHO you are you will know HOW to live.

    De Profundis is wonderful!
    Thanks, Arvik

    • Ooh, I like those, thanks for sharing! That’s a really good idea about collecting quotations, too. I should start doing that. 🙂

  2. Mine is contra omnes potestates–against all powers.

    I started out trying to translate “against all flags” into Latin, but flags didn’t exist in the Roman period.

    • I like it! I’m impressed you can translate Latin… Schools here don’t offer it very frequently, to my chagrin.

  3. ‘Praeter solitudinem nihil video’ -I saw nothing but solitude. Words that took me into the woods.

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