Frank Herbert once said, “To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror, to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror.”
Now, being inspired by aphorisms like YOLO (you only live once) is one thing. I mean, true, there is emphasis on having one life, but it’s easy to stay positive when the conversation is about life or living. However, when you throw in words like mortality and impermanence, when the focus shifts to death, well, that’s when things can take a turn for the bleak. For most people, myself included, the idea of facing one’s impending death is a terrifying thought.
Sure, one can talk about death and the permanent peace that comes with it. But oftentimes when such talk arises, it’s one that’s cloaked in abstractness. For the healthy person, at least, death may seem like a concept—a faraway thing separate from the reality he/she inhabits.
The truth is that few people want constant reminders of the impermanence of everything—especially life. It’s certainly not small-talk material. And yet, many mental health experts believe that facing and accepting one’s mortality can be an important ingredient to a better life. In Stoicism, for example, the path to eudaimonia, a.k.a. the life worth living, requires reminding yourself of the transient nature of your life and everything and everyone you hold dear.
In Massimo Pigliucci’s enlightening book, How to Be a Stoic, he asks the readers to come to terms with the impermanence of everything. He introduces the short Latin phrase used by Roman generals to remind themselves of their mortality—memento homo, Remember, you are only a man.
Now, I don’t quite know where the phrase originated from, but according to this source, Julius Caesar had asked an Auriga (slave) to whisper it to him during his victorious march. Memento homo was a way for the great Roman General to keep his mortality and humanity in mind in the face of his great achievements. I guess in a way it was there to keep the general’s head in the game by keeping his ego in check. And that makes perfect sense. Ancient Rome was a place rife with plotting, conniving, and murder. Letting your guard down at any moment could prove fatal. Just ask any of the 80+ Roman emperors who were assassinated.
That’s all well and good for the ancient Romans, but how exactly does facing our mortality benefit us, the modern common folk? Well, for this lifelong student, the following advantages come to mind:
Contemplating and accepting our mortality gives us time to make preparations for the inevitable.
A former colleague once joked about the best graduation gift he’s ever received. It was a funeral plan, complete with his own plot of land where he could set up camp permanently in the very distant future. I remember we all got a big laugh out of it. We were all in our early 20s and the gift had seemed ridiculous then. Fast-forward to a decade later and the gift no longer seems ridiculous—if anything, it’s practical. The last few years have taught me that death is almost always unexpected. And while I’m not telling anyone to start purchasing funeral plans, or start giving them out to friends and family at Christmas, at a certain point, we’ll all have to start making some preparations.
Whether it’s setting up a trust fund for the kids, investing in life insurance, drafting a will, or creating a map that details the location of buried treasure, I think it might somewhat help our loved ones when it’s our time to go. Of course, having a ready last will and testament will not lessen the pain experienced by one’s family, but it might prevent further friction between them. I have heard about too many families fight over property, money, and other assets. If we can help save them from that kind of pain, why wouldn’t we?
Pondering death can motivate us to live our lives intentionally.
When somebody asks you, “What is your life’s purpose?”, sometimes it may sound like a loaded question, an opening for judgment. There is pressure to give an answer that would be considered noble, grand, or laudable. Now, I know a lot of people who struggle with this question. However, the upside of choosing your life’s purpose is that you get to decide on which things give your life meaning. The truth is that you define your own goals and objectives. No one else has the right to fault you for whatever answer you may have, or if you choose not give an answer at all. As the Wiccans put it, “Do what you will if it harms none.”
And the beauty of pondering and accepting the inevitability of death is that, in a way, it can help motivate you to pursue your dreams and to focus on the things that give your life value. Life is short—oftentimes, it feels too short. So, there’s no better time to start building the life you want than the present. Whether or not you achieve all your dreams isn’t as important as going after them. That is what it means to live your life with purpose.
Remembering that we must return to dust teaches us to appreciate what we have.
Take a deep breath and picture everything and everyone you love. Let your mind’s eye dwell on every detail of every person, pet, item, or place that brings your life tremendous joy or meaning. Do you have a clear picture yet? Now, imagine each one fading into nothingness. One day, everything and everyone we love will be taken away. Either we’ll go first or they will. This is the impermanence of everything.
It’s hardly a comforting thought, I know. But you know what is comforting? It’s the fact that we’re still here—and if we’re lucky, most of the things and people we love are still here as well. Our time on Earth is very limited. So, why don’t we spend the time we have left to show our love and appreciation for our loved ones? Now, before the clock runs out.
Thinking about death offers liberation from stigma and definition.
This is where memento homo really kicks in. Imagine being one of those triumphant Roman generals. You have vanquished your enemies and you might just be the most powerful man or woman in one of the most powerful empires of all time. You are the top dog. It’s so easy to get swept up in the hype (whether yours or other people’s), and you may even fancy yourself god-like with all your amazing achievements. Then, an Auriga comes up to you and whispers, “Remember, you are only a man.”
Now, let’s flip the coin. Imagine being the general who is forced into retreat. The advancing powers have left your army decimated and you have escaped by the skin of your teeth. You are cloaked in shame and are consumed with the guilt of having disgraced your family, your ruler, and your people. You weep at the thought that your name is forever sullied by your defeat. Then, the Auriga’s words ring clear in your memory, “Remember, you are only a man.”
While, as mentioned earlier, the reminder brings a unique set of advantages to an actual general/dictator/emperor, remembering that you will one day be gone and even forgotten is still pretty good advice today. It teaches you to see yourself beyond your reputation (how other people see you), your greatest strengths, and your most staggering failings. You are going to be just one of the many people who have graced the Earth. You are neither your greatest achievement nor your greatest failure. There’s a certain poignancy and freedom that comes with truly understanding that statement.
Knowing and understanding this can help free you from whatever definition or stigma you may carry inside of you. Here is a simple fact of life. We all win some and lose some and that’s all part of the journey.
Accepting our mortality reminds us to be mindful and to live hic et nunc (here and now).
The minute we’re born, our body’s countdown to the end begins. It’s a peculiar clock. There’s no way to see how much time we have left. We have no way to halt or significantly slow its pace, though a myriad of things can quicken its ticking. This should be a reminder to us that each moment we have is precious and should not be wasted.
I believe that instinctively, we all know this to be true. And yet, so many of us still spend our days just half-present. Somehow the days meld together into an unrecognizable heap that by the end of the week, we can’t even remember what we had for breakfast last Wednesday. While man has yet to discover how to physically time travel, our minds have become proficient at living in the past and worrying about the future. Going through life in this manner, speeding through life just half-there to experience the ride is a surefire way to gather deathbed regrets. And what use is regret when you can no longer rectify your errors?
This is where the importance of mindfulness and living in the hic et nunc (here and now) comes in. When faced with certain death, you wouldn’t want to be the person who spends your final hours taking stock of the countless should’ves, would’ves, and could’ves. So, slow down. Be here now. Live every moment with intention and appreciation. Make use of the time you have left wisely and deliberately.