“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Marcus Aurelius
The summer is a time of flourishing. The darkness of winter has passed. There is still new growth, rejuvenation and rebirth everywhere. In contrast to this appetite for new beginnings, there is one salient truth which we continually overlook: that each one of us will die. Whether rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful, intelligent or unintelligent, religious or atheist, the certainty of death is there for us all. And, some people deliberately keep this awareness at the forefront of their minds.
The idea comes from an ancient branch of philosophy called Stoicism. Although it was founded in the early 3rd century BC in Athens, Stoicism has much to offer us in our lives today. When we think of the word ‘stoic’, we tend to imagine a farm animal standing in a field in the pouring rain, resigned to putting up with the wet and the cold. Alternatively, we bring to mind a person going through difficult times with no emotion or seeming reaction and just dealing with it. Yet this is not what the philosophy is about at all.
Primarily, the Stoic approach trains us to differentiate between the things we can control in life, and the situations we can’t control. And, from there, to focus on and expand the former. This mindset is very valuable when operating in high-stress environments or when we are going through any trials in our lives.
Other key ideas include a reminder about the brevity of life and the unpredictable nature of it; they guide us to overcome destructive emotions with logic and encourage us to act only on those things that can be acted upon. They also prompt us that we do not have control over, nor can we rely on, external events. Also, we can depend only on ourselves and our responses to those events.
Particularly, I find helpful the theory of Memento Mori which, when translated, means “remember you must die”. It is a practice of reflection on our mortality, not to promote fear but to motivate and inspire us. In Buddhists tenets, mindfulness of death, or maraṇasati, is a central teaching. It is thought of as a route to better living because it acts as a reminder that we are all impermanent.
I have found this contemplation of my death rather upsetting initially, but that is wrong. It is a gentle nudge to live a life of virtue and completion each day. Seneca, a Stoic philosopher, says, “the one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” He reminds us that we “may not wake up tomorrow” and we “may not sleep again today”.
So, let’s look more closely at how the practice of Memento Mori might help us live a more rewarding life:
- It enables us to live life to the fullest. It is so easy to procrastinate and put things off that we want to do or that bring us joy. Memento Mori creates a sense of urgency and a determination to act now and embrace life every day with good energy. It too ensures we see life as a gift and not waste it on trivial pursuits, savouring everything in the present moment as if it were our last experience of them.
- It helps us to be mentally healthy. So much of our mental ill health is caused by emotional baggage and mental roadblocks that we are hanging on to. If we use Memento Mori as our guiding principle, it allows us to let go of this inner turmoil because we realise most of it is not worth holding on to. This includes resentments from the past; worrying about issues that aren’t deserving of worry; or, being restrained by self-doubt, the opinions of others and our comparison of ourselves with others.
- It reminds us to keep our affairs in order. It is easy to live as if we are not going to die. To think and act as though we are immortal. The sad reality is that we all have a death sentence and we do not know when that time will come, so it is essential to have our financial and legal responsibilities prepared for when the inevitable day comes.
- It brings our ego into sharp perspective. Usually, our ego turns away from anything that reminds us of a reality that is at odds with the narrative we have built for ourselves and our lives. Moreover, we are terrified to look at life’s facts as they are and contemplate head on that we and our loved ones, and indeed everyone and everything, are going to die. From there though we have a choice: to act on the recognition of our impermanence or to return to our more comfortable way of being that holds on to our self-created narrative of immortality.
To conclude, the value of embracing the Memento Mori approach is that we become purposeful, focused and we take action, based on virtues, morals and ethical principles. So, allow this thinking to let your sense of identity align more with your inner brilliance and magnitude and less with your ego’s limitations and smallness so you genuinely can be at ease to “leave life right now”. As Steve Jobs described “remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”