“This is our big mistake: to think we look forward to death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.”-Seneca
The birth of my daughter was the event that lit the proverbial fire under my ass.
After she arrived, life started accelerating. My entire way of thinking about time changed. No longer did I feel like I had all the time in the world to do whatever I pleased. She is like a living hourglass, and every day she seems to grow a little bigger and smarter, and every day I feel my time getting shorter and shorter. I am racing against the sunset every day, and the days are only speeding by faster and faster.
I am embarrassed to admit that it took me so long to have the realization that my time is not infinite. Although I knew logically that I must die eventually, feeling this way all of a sudden was like a slap in the face. I was angry with myself for not noticing this small detail much earlier in life, regretful of all the years I whittled away goofing around purposelessly on who-knows-what.
I can now see moments in time for what they are: A series of finite opportunities, not certain to present themselves again. And if the moment does reappear, who can say that I will be alive to seize it? The idea of later, as in, “I’ll do it later,” is now laughable to me: There is no such thing as later! The only thing that is real is right now.
In Latin, Memento Mori is translated as “Remember you must die.”
I believe, like the ancient Stoic philosophers believed, that it is vitally important to meditate on death, specifically your own death. While this idea may seem morbid and depressing according to modern sensibilities, it is exactly the opposite.
Thinking about your own inevitable death on a daily basis has several surprising benefits:
The most obvious benefit this type of meditation provides is perspective. Almost all inconveniences, setbacks, slights, insults, and discomforts become trivial when you realize that eventually you must die. You can focus on what is truly important for a good life: Love, friendship, knowledge, charity, and easing the suffering of your fellow man.
Remembering that your life is finite and that you must die also allows you to look at everything you do with a sense of purpose. While it would seem easy to become nihilistic when faced with the idea of impending death, in fact the opposite happens. You realize that there are objectively good things in this life, and that you have only so much time to accomplish your goals. The specter of death is always looming so you better work fast and get to the point.
Furthermore, contemplating the finality of death allows your experiences here on Earth to become even more meaningful. You stop taking common things for granted and begin to experience more from each simple moment. When you are dead, you will never taste food again: This piece of fruit is an epic flavor experience. When you are dead, you will never feel your muscles contracting and air being drawn into your body: Moving your body and exercising is not painful, it is a privilege. When you are dead, you cannot feel happy, sad, tired, or energized: Whatever slightly unpleasant emotion I am feeling right now is actually interesting and I should lean into it and explore what it means. When you are dead you will not feel the cold, the heat, the rain, the sun: Getting caught in the rain is exciting and the cold rain drops feel refreshing on your skin, it’s not worth complaining about.
Finally, thinking about the prospect of death regularly will give you much more appreciation for simply being alive. Realize how fortunate you really are for having a living body and working mind right now, because it’s not going to be that way forever. Right now, while you can, take care of your body and mind the best way you are able to. Respect the gift of life that you have right now by living the best way possible, for the gift is not yours to keep forever. You will join the dead soon, and when it is your time you should do so without regrets.
I only discovered the philosophy of Stoicism a few years ago, but the more I learned about it, the more I realized that I already knew many of these concepts to be true. In fact, I have been thinking this way for as far back as I can remember: Avoid needless anxiety over things that I cannot change; accept reality for what it is; change myself because it is impossible to change others; think about death often to help clarify what a good life should be; use reason rather than emotion to shape my thoughts and actions; stop caring about the thoughts and actions of others; focus on each day and each moment rather than thinking about the future or the past; find tranquility in moderation and do not desire excess of any one thing.
The paradoxes of human behavior are many: We worry about death, but never really live in the first place. We have crippling anxiety about external circumstances, but never take steps to control what is actually under our control. We care so much about the opinions of others, and undervalue what we know in our hearts and minds to be right and true.
It has been well over 2000 years since the Stoics put their ideas into words, but their writings are worth reading today more than ever.
“Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long as you live and while you can, become good now.”-Marcus Aurelius
I feel that we often think of death as somewhat of an option in modern society. We have the knowledge, medication, and technology to sometimes postpone death for a certain period of time. We have opiates and anesthesia to make pain and suffering optional for many conditions. The medical system acts as a cushion against the horrors and indignities of disease, and this sense of invincibility leads many to live their lives without concern that their self-destructive actions are hastening their death. All the while, people worry needlessly about sickness and death which simultaneously robs them of life. And this fact remains: Despite all the pills and procedures that we have to keep people alive, death is coming eventually.
So what is the only logical solution to this universal truth?
Stop worrying about external events and circumstances: Instead focus your energy only on the things that you can control. Set honorable goals and live a life aligned with virtue. Show respect for your very existence by taking care of the body and mind that will eventually be taken away from you. The past is gone forever and already belongs to death: The future is an uncertain fantasy. All you truly have is right here and right now. Make your actions of every day, every hour, every moment count, because you could draw your last breath today.
The pandemic of 2020 threw modern life back in our faces, and showed us all what the ancients already knew to be true–death can come for anyone at any time, without warning or reason.
I acknowledge that death is coming for me, so I won’t waste my limited time here on Earth with purposeless thoughts or actions that harm me: While I can, I will stand for health, life, and vitality! Will you do the same?