How to Live One Day at a Time

by D.F. Miller, CSSR
Imprimatur + 1962

Thou Art DustPerhaps the most important bit of practical spiritual advice that can be given to people in the world today is that contained in the title above: Live one day at a time. A large proportion of the unrest, conflict, frustration, rebellion against life, and downright sin into which individuals fall is due to their failure to concentrate their attention and efforts on rightly using just one day of their lives at a time.

A meditation on this subject should involve three things:

I. What it means “to live one day at a time.”
II. What is the opposite of living one day at a time. 
III. Motives for living one day at a time.

I. What it Means

The rule, “Live one day at a time,” does not mean that thoughts of the future should never be permitted to enter a person’s mind at all.

Every intelligent human being is bound to think seriously at times of death and heaven and hell, all future realities should affect him in important ways. But to earn a happy death, to win heaven and to escape hell, no one need worry today about the problems, temptations, and responsibilities of next week or next month or next year. It is only necessary to give God each day, even each hour, as it comes along.

Furthermore, it is only natural for human beings to have thoughts about their material and temporal future here in this world. One of the gifts of human intelligence is that it is capable of dreaming about and planning for the future. It is impossible to live without hopes and dreams and plans. The sick man looks forward to being well. The student looks forward to his graduation and to using the education he is acquiring. Engaged lovers look forward to their marriage. The poor man looks forward to release from his debts and privations.

Yet with a multitude of dreams and hopes and plans, both of a spiritual and temporal nature, it is still possible for a person to concentrate on carrying the burdens, facing the tasks, fulfilling the duties of one day at a time. On that day, he isolates in his mind just what has to be done or borne here and now from all the other future things he may have to do in order to reach a certain goal. He resolutely resists and smothers fears of what may happen to him tomorrow or next month or next year. He wastes no time, after he has fixed on his plan, worrying about possible obstacles to its fulfillment that do not have to be faced today.

II. The Opposite of Living One Day at a Time

Opposed to the attitude and habit of living one day at a time is that which consists of an ever-present, unreasonable anxiety about the future. The world is overstocked today with people who are oppressed by this attitude. Worries about future possible catastrophies, about burdens that may or may not some day be theirs, deprive them of the power to relax, and take all the good out of every small and great joy that comes their way today.

In scrupulous persons, this “every-present anxiety” manifests itself in an inordinate fear that God will never forgive them, no matter how much they want or try to love Him; or in the fear that they will not be able, even with the powerful grace of God, to survive the normal temptations of life without falling into grave sin. Scrupulous persons are not content to say: “O God, I love You now, I love You today; I will not offend you today.” They carry an unnecessary burden of both the past and the future: the past, in that they will not accept God’s assurances of forgiveness, even though they have done everything required for forgiveness; the future, in that they see only inescapable sin and hell looming before them.

Far more common, however, then scrupulosity, is the ever-present anxiety of people about their material or temporal future. This anxiety starts with the false assumption or dream that something like perfect happiness is attainable in this world; that its attainment depends only on achieving a certain degree of affluence and being freed from pressing responsibilities. Those who are constantly peering into the future, and seeing little possibility that these two conditions of their false dream of happiness will be fulfilled, fall easy prey to the “ever-present anxiety” about the future.

Examples abound. It is natural that, in the materialistic atmosphere of America, many of the victims of over anxiety for the future are made such by false dreams of money and the good living made possible by a great deal of money. There are those who cannot be happy, even though today they have everything they actually need. The reason is that they cannot be sure today that in the future they will have everything they need.

Even when a man has far more material assets than he needs or can use today, his joy of living can be spoiled by something other than money that he does not have and may not attain in the future. The high-salaried vice-president of a company can be miserable because his eyes are fixed on the presidency of the company and he doubts that the future will bring it to him.

Hypochondriacs are wretched victims of anxiety about the future. Today they may feel reasonably well; they may be able to do their work; they may be capable of enjoying many human compensations and rewards. But they enjoy nothing because they are overwhelmed with the fear that tomorrow or next week or next year they will have cancer or a stroke or some incurable affliction.

Young mothers with three or four children are especially prone to the unreasonable anxiety about the future that takes the joy out of each day, and often leads to the deep joylessness of habitual sin. Their hands are filled and their days are crowded with the tasks involved in caring for three or four children. Instead of living one crowded day at a time, they may become obsessed with the frightening thought that the future might bring them six or seven or eight children. So they permit today’s tasks to become compounded by thoughts of the tasks that may or may not be theirs five or six or ten years from now. Thus they become engulfed in self-pity, mostly because of future possible events, and are easy prey to suggestions of sin that promises to take care of them ten years from now. They forget that nothing but God can take care of anyone ten years from now. God asks them to live only one day at a time, and to live it for Him.

It is good, then, for everyone who finds himself subject to anxiety and worry to ask himself, frequently: “How much of this worry of mine springs solely from my concern about future possible events? How much of it can I eliminate completely by concentrating simply on using this day rightly and well?”

III. Motives for Living One Day at a Time

There are many considerations that can be built into a person’s outlook on life that will spare him from over-anxiety about the future, and make it easy for him to make the most of one day of his life at a time. Let every reader of these lines ponder slowly and prayerfully the following:

1. Think of how easily God and the world can do without you, and will do without you some day. 

Perhaps the most basic and essential element of true humility is the attitude expressed in these words: God does not need me, today, tomorrow or ever. I need God.” This attitude in no way denies the fact that God chooses to use human beings as instruments in the accomplishment of some of His plans. It should fill a person’s heart with gratitude to know that God is using him or her today — as a father or mother of a family, as a priest or missionary or an active nun, even as a contemplative praying for others. This thought can be extended to embrace even a person’s work in the world, whether it be building, making, selling, transporting material things; even in such work God is using human beings as instruments. But God’s use of our work or our vocation today should never be looked upon as a guarantee that He will still choose to use us tomorrow. To become steeped in that conviction one need only look at the death list in a newspaper any day of the year, or make a visit to a cemetery.

Every day God takes some of those who seem to our human eyes every important cogs in a family or business or even an apostolate, to Himself. he can do the same to anyone, ourselves included.

Reading the names and dates on tombstones is a reminder of the same truth. How many of those now long dead, died at a time when their minds were filled with plans and dreams for the next month or year! How many were filled with frustrations and worries on the very day they died because they were concerned too much about the future! How foolish the worries seem now, and how soon after their death the world resumed its course without them.

There need be nothing morbid about this. Its sole fruit should be a strengthening of the conviction expressed in these words: “I need God today. God does not need me. I will give God this day that He gives to me.

2. Think of the gratitude you owe to God for all the good things He has given you. 

Each day that God gives to any one of us is only a latest in a long series of good things he has given to us in the past. It should be looked upon, not as the threshold to a doubtful and uncertain and worrisome future, but as one more (which might be the last) gift on top of thousands of past benefactions.

The popular song about counting your blessings contains a pertinent moral.It is so much better to count up what you have already received into account and worry about what you may or may not receive tomorrow.

This should be done even by those who are, according to the phrase, “in the prime of life.” Young fathers and mothers raising small children, young professional persons just reaching the height of their ability to serve others, should learn to block out worries about the future with thoughts of what God has permitted them to do in the past.

If one acquires the habit of us being grateful for each new day is something added to God’s generosity’s in the past, then upper middle age and even old age will not be a trial. Each new day, with whatever trials or weakness and illness it may bring, will be accepted as something far beyond what one has deserved.

3. Think of the one most important thing required of you for one day — to live without offending God by serious sin.

“Alcoholics Anonymous” attributes much of its success in rescuing the victims of compulsive drinking to one of the rules of its code, namely, that which keeps them constantly mindful that they need to fight the battle of resisting a taste of intoxicants for only one day at a time.

This same principle may be profitably applied to a far vaster field, indeed the whole field of Christian living. While God asks His children to love Him with their whole hearts, which means to be ready at any time to suffer anything for love of Him, He still gives each of His children only one day at a time in which to carry out their resolve.

This is especially important for those were trying to overcome some habit of serious sin. After they have planned their campaign, for example, to avoid unnecessary occasions of sin, to use the sacraments and prayer frequently, they should settle down to fight their battle just one day at a time. They will lose the battle if they keep saying to themselves,”How can I ever avoid the sin of impurity, or the sin of anger, or the sin of the detraction, or the sin of drunkenness, for a whole year or for ten years?” They will win the battle if they say to themselves,”God asks no one to live more than one day at a time. Today I shall be faithful to him at any cost.”

4. Think of the smallness of today’s troubles and sorrows in comparison with the sufferings of Christ in the pains of hell.

Self-pity always has its roots in surrender to the feeling that God is being unfair and unjust to us in sending us so many burdens that he does not ask others to bear. Actually, the comparison that should be made is not between ourselves and other human beings on earth, but between ourselves and the suffering, crucified Christ, and between ourselves and the eternally lost in hell.

No human being, not even the most tortured by illness or persecuted by enemies, has to bear anything like the sufferings of Christ on Good Friday. Whatever the sorrows or burdens one day brings are only a tiny share or overflow of the sufferings of Christ during His passion. When we run into a hard day in our lives (and it must be repeated that hard days come only one at a time), we should say to ourselves: “this is my Good Friday. But certainly its darkness, it’s bitterness, it’s loneliness, it’s pain, is not worthy to be compared with what Christ suffered for me on the day he made atonement for my sins.”

In similar fashion a person who has a hard day should train himself to think of how feeble is the comparison between his (or her) suffering of today and that which lost souls are experiencing in hell, and which he himself Might be experiencing if God had taken him in any of his past serious sins.

It is possible for people on earth to heed the advice of living one day at a time simply because there is always a certain hope that things can and will be better in the future. What in hell there is no such hope. Lost souls know that, while the present is filled with torment, there is no prospect that the torment will ever lessen. Hopelessness and despair are the lot of the damned; they need never be a lot of those still living on earth.


With motives and thoughts like these, it is possible for anyone to bear up cheerfully under the burdens of a given day. Whenever there is a temptation to feel oppressed by thoughts of how dark the future appears, all the above reflections will be called upon to offset the feeling of oppression. And this prayer, which the Church places on the lips of all who say the Divine Office every day and at the beginning of each day, in prime, will be called to mind:

“O Lord God Almighty, who hast brought us to the beginning of this day, defend us in the same by Thy Power: That we may not fall this day into any sin, but that all our thoughts, words and works maybe directed to the fulfillment of Thy will. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth in the unity of the Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.”