It is not every day that we think about our own mortality. It usually does not cross our minds on a day-to-day basis. We are generally too occupied with being alive, for lack of better words. But I think there is something we ought to discuss, that being the difference between having a pulse and actually living life. It is one of the great tragedies in the modern world that so many choose to simply coast along the river of life content with mediocrity and meaningless existences, rather than genuinely living the human experience the way it was meant to be lived: by making one’s will manifest upon the world and leaving something of value behind.
Ask yourself this: When you are going to die for certain, will you be a content person?
Will you look back upon your odyssey with fondness and fulfillment, with the knowledge that you left your mark upon the world and humanity? Or will you feel like you never lived the life you wanted and that you still need more time in this world, thinking all of this while you inevitably slip out of this world and your name forever relegated to fading memory.
We are going to be talking about some rather grim topics today, but ones that must be addressed. We will talk about this great journey we call life and how to truly begin living the way I see it.
You may have heard this Latin phrase before, but it is the ultimate summation of how to think about and live life. It is simply this: Memento Mori.
Or, in our terms: Remember that you have to die.
It’s not a common occurrence to contemplate death. Usually, it’s a topic that’s too far off for people my age, but also, for some, it can be a topic bringing much distress. It’s one of the concepts of life itself that is inescapable. Life is born, and life dies. We are no different. But we should go deeper into why humans specifically fear death, given that we are the only species gifted with higher intelligence, giving this basal force of nature an opportunity to be reasoned with.
Why do we fear death? It’s a question that stirs up a lot of thought and demands it be considered eventually in our lives. I think there are a few things that need to be made clear on what humans actually fear regarding death.
Firstly, there is the primal, bloodborne fear that we carry from our days in the caves. Death itself is something that was all too common in our genesis, so our ancestors were very in touch with their own mortality, albeit in a visceral manner with not many intellectual elements. Our self-preservation instinct is strong, but in a modern context where we are, for the most part, safe, it is the moments before our death that we are truly afraid of.
Our basal fears of death are ones associated with the pain and agony of dying. The state of death itself is not something we have a primal reaction to. The self-preservation instinct is to keep us from entering a condition in which certain death is possible, not to escape death itself, which we knew even as cavemen was inevitable.
Fear of the agony leading to death is understandable and only conquerable by the most hardened souls that mainly exist in warriors or similar lines of occupation where constant peril is the norm. Most people won’t reach the point where they do not fear being maimed or suffering in agony until their demise. This requires a lifetime of work. Luckily, that is not the focus of this piece.
Death itself is not something to fear. Because death is not suffering, it is the lack of life, which carries with it no pleasure or pain to speak of. Plato put the concept well:
“Either death is a state of nothingness and utter consciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now, if death is of such a nature, I say that to die is to gain; for eternity is then only a single night.”Plato
In the first possibility, you no longer exist as a conscious entity, meaning that your capacity to suffer is non-existent. The essence of your being is cast into a void of nothing if you are not one to believe in an afterlife. There is no reason to fear the void after death. Your very capacity to be anxious, fearful, or stressed is gone. It is the eternal sleep of all life.
On the other hand, death is merely the passage into a new and eternal life. Our essence of being exists in an eternal state of consciousness. We reach eternal communion with God, should we be worthy, and live eternity in the embrace of the Lord.
Both of these outcomes, whichever you choose to believe, are not negative intrinsically. None give way to suffering, and there is nothing to fear. However, humans still fear death for a different reason; That reason being a product of our intelligence: that we will have never truly begun to live before we die. This is the primary anxiety of death that cripples some who cannot bear its weight. However, it is a weight quickly taken up if one knows how to live a fulfilled life. Really, beginning to truly live means fully reconciling your inevitable death.
First, fully internalizing and accepting the universality and inevitability of death into your psyche is vital. It is not enough to accept death and all that comes with it in your conscious mind. One must work to ingrain death and the contemplation thereof into their psyche. There’s a Bhutanese folk saying that I think rings true, that being “to be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” One must work to make death a part of their everyday thinking. If one does, they will enjoy contentment as well as a newfound resolve to live life to the fullest.
Living life to the fullest is often an overused term that is too ambiguous to have any good meaning to people. A fulfilled life is something that all of us can achieve, and at its core, consists of the same principles.
Similarly, the phrase “live each day as if it were your last” is bad advice. If this mantra is taken to heart in its most literal sense, this sentiment would only serve to make most people’s lives worse or even cause an untimely death itself. These actions one might do are those hypothetical fantasies like doing all the dangerous, foolish things that you wouldn’t have done if you weren’t certain of your death. If you’ve ever answered that question about what you would do if you knew it was your last day on earth, you know what I’m talking about.
In reality, to fulfill oneself, they must live each day doing things that fulfill their goals in life, and those goals being aligned with a long-term good. That long-term good should also be in accordance with a higher purpose, usually in the form of leaving something of value behind when you drift off into death. For most of human history, the chief good that people leave behind for the world is their children, but that is certainly not the only good one can leave behind.
Really, we shouldn’t live our lives as if it were our last day. Instead, it is better if we focus on what goods each action we partake in on a daily basis adds to the world and ourselves.
In short, Marcus Aurelius puts it in better terms:
Make each action meaningful. Would you want your last act to be a foolish inconsequential one? Any reasonable person would choose something worthy, honorable, and consequential to be their last act. This method of looking at a task can be fruitful if utilized in the right way. When confronted with death after this last assignment or task one does, one thing is certain: they would not settle for mediocrity, only excellence.
Another important aspect in my experience is mindset. We often don’t realize how much of our suffering is purely imagined in our minds and not a reality. A good mindset is one of the greatest weapons one has against the struggle of life. In regard to emotion, it is almost always a pointless and detrimental exercise to give into them and wallow in them. Of course, emotions are a natural and vital part of the human experience, so being in touch with them is not intrinsically bad. In fact, one of the great lies told to men is the idea that they must suppress their emotions. This is pure stupidity. Really, all people must learn not to suppress emotion but to become its master. When one learns to feel but also be in control of feeling, it pays enormous dividends.
It’s important to experience these emotions, but not to the point where they exact control over your actions. Remember, your actions are what you are defined by. It’s what separates the mediocre from the excellent. Any feeling that impedes your ability to live life in its most fulfilling form is not worth giving any attention to.
Of course, once again, this doesn’t mean to suppress those emotions. It means that you can dedicate time to recovering from those feelings and understanding the cause of them in order to get back to your duties in life. It is when these emotions become destructive and not illuminating that they need to be reined in. Feeling emotions can educate more than anything in this world if one takes the time to discern where they come from and why they manifest.
One must understand that the vast majority of unpleasant thoughts or feelings one might have are mostly imagination. Most suffering is caused by overthinking, pitying oneself, cursing oneself and others. This is poison in your mind. Fear, sorrow, dread, all of these emotions are liars. Don’t let them win.
Misfortune, which is very real and not imagined, will always be a part of human life. There’s so much out of our control that could ruin our lives. That’s simply the reality of being. There’s nothing you can do about it, so it is pointless to worry. Instead, do not think of misfortune in life as “bad”; think of it as another opportunity to prove your inner strength and resolve to God, yourself, and the world.
To take on misfortune in a self-pitying way is wasting your time on this earth. Remember, you’re going to die. So, dust yourself off and get back in the fight. Do what needs to be done to get over whatever gets you down and take up your sword and join the ranks of the people who have truly begun to live life.
Death is inevitable. Death is not an event to dread but a reality to accept with no value judgment placed upon it. The things you do now will determine how you feel right before you die. Live life for a higher purpose, and to leave behind something of value for your children and for generations to come, will make a content human on their deathbed. When I depart from this earth, I will not go with feelings of regret but with a smile, knowing that I gave something to this world bigger than myself.
Remember, your clock is ticking. Time is running out, and there’s no rewinding.
You’re going to die. Now go live life while you still can.