Memento Homo: Finding Meaning in Your Mortality

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Image by: Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

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.

What is Philosophy?

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Image by morhamedufmg from Pixabay

The word Philosophy is rooted in the Latin word Philosophia—a portmanteau of the two Ancient Greek words: philos which means loving and sophia, which means wisdom. So, you can say that the literal and original translation of Philosophy is the “love and pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.”

Nowadays, however, the word has taken on a broader meaning. In everyday conversation, the word is often used to refer to a person’s values and ideologies. It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to their belief systems as their philosophy/ies in life. And the usage would still be correct. However, for the purpose of this post, and most succeeding posts pertaining to this subject, we’ll be examining and using the definition of the academic discipline called Philosophy.

Merriam Webster offers a broad definition of Philosophy as “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, and the nature and meaning of life.” While Wikipedia offers a more comprehensive definition with, “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” Now, whether you choose to go with the Merriam Webster definition or that of Wikipedia’s, you come away with a fundamental understanding that Philosophy is a thinking subject. One that requires effort, action, and deliberateness. It is a subject that seeks to uncover the nature, root, and meaning of life, being, reality (metaphysics), ethics, and knowledge (epistemology). It’s also an incredible history lesson because it gives you a glimpse of the prevalent ideologies and belief systems of various civilizations throughout the ages.

If the definition seems expansive, that’s because it is. After all, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Philosophy is regarded as the mother of all sciences. Through the constant thinking, imagining, and overthinking of various philosophers throughout history, humankind has come away with a thirst for discovery and knowledge. If curiosity killed the cat, the philosophers’ curiosity birthed modern science, critical reasoning, logic, and many of the plotlines of today’s best works of art, film, and literature.

Trivia Time: Plato’s belief that everything in the universe is patterned after “invisible geometrical shapes” (Platonic solids) helped start the study of Modern Chemistry. His telling of the story of “The Ring of Gyges” in The Republic is also the inspiration behind Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” As for Aristotle, he happens to be the father of the species-genus classification that we use in Science today! He also believed the world was round long before Copernicus was even born. He came away with this conclusion after studying the lunar eclipse and the shadows created by the Earth against the Moon. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

So, you see, Philosophy has taught us a great many things throughout history—and it continues to offer us a plethora of learnings today. By offering us multiple perspectives on life, meaning, reality, et al., it helps expand our mindset. It teaches us to become more logical, introspective, openminded, and consequently, empathic. And since creativity means venturing past reality into the realm of possibility, there’s a great chance philosophy can also help widen and deepen our thinking process, i.e. make us more creative. All good things in my book.

 

Recommended Read: The website Philosophy Basics offers an excellent collection of the many definitions of Philosophy that you’ll find online and in various dictionaries.

Related Articles:

Writing Exercise: A Book that Changed My Life

Thoughts on Philosophy: Is studying philosophy pointless? Does it make you pretentious?

Thoughts on Philosophy: Is studying philosophy pointless? Does it make you pretentious?

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Photo by Janeb13 (from Pixabay)

In a previous post called Writing Exercises: A Book that Changed My Life, I talked about how Sophie’s World started my love for Philosophy. Now, let me begin by saying that I am by no means an expert on the subject matter. In fact, when we were studying the subject in college, I was a rather mediocre student. As was the case with Math and Physics, my love affair with Philosophy was very one-sided. But it’s a love of mine that’s endured the years, and one that I’m keen on nurturing and strengthening—occasionally through short courses but mostly through reading and listening to lectures and podcasts.

Now, over the years, I’ve noticed that Philosophy has a bit of a reputation problem. As a conversation topic, unless you’re surrounded by other enthusiasts, it’s bound to be a pretty quick stopper. People may nod or hmm politely, but it’s not very likely that you’d get any follow-up questions. Some people may even find the very word itself to be a bit of an internal ugh or eyeroll trigger. According to some friends, it’s just because philosophy is one of those things that are hard to get into. Some people find the subject inaccessible, boring, or even useless. Others have confessed to just finding people who talk about it really smug and annoying. And yes, the word pretentious did come up frequently and forcefully.

And honestly, I get it. I really do. People like what they like and are entitled to their opinions. I also see how philosophy isn’t exactly the most relatable or accessible, outwardly practical or interesting subject out there. In fact, a lot of philosophical texts are loaded with highfalutin words and stubbornly abstract concepts. I also get that some philosophy fans do come across as pretentious, arrogant, argumentative, and snooty know-it-alls. And hey, maybe some of them really are all those things and more. But what I’m really more interested in and concerned with are the harsh generalizations about the subject and its students that I’ve heard about or seen, (mostly online).

I think a lot of these misconceptions and generalizations stem from a misunderstanding of what philosophy is and what it’s used for. But before we get into the definition of philosophy and an enumeration of its uses, (things I’ll tackle in a separate post), I’d like to share a few of my thoughts on some of the criticisms levied against philosophy and its students.  Just my two cents, really.

  1. Not everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or intellectually arrogant. To say that everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or an intellectual snob is a pretty heavy generalization. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m sure there are some philosophy students who think they are smarter than the average joe or jane, but that’s not an always and everybody case. In fact, some of the most low-key, quiet, and humble people I’ve met happen to be philosophy professors or graduates. Pretentiousness and intellectual snobbery occur in every possible realm of study where conflicting opinions could arise—which is basically everywhere and regarding everything these days. I believe that being pretentious or having a superiority complex is more of a personality thing than a byproduct of studying or loving a specific subject.

 

  1. Philosophy is only as boring as every other subject you can think of. The word boring is incredibly subjective. What’s boring to one person is another person’s passion. Philosophy isn’t and doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea.

 

  1. Many philosophy books feel inaccessible with their highfalutin words and hard-to-understand concepts. But there’s a solution to that problem. I don’t know about other philosophy fans, but I find original texts (translated into English) hard to grasp at times. To make it easier to study a particular branch of philosophy, I usually take short online courses, read Introduction to Philosophy books, and listen to various lectures just to get a better grasp of what a particular philosopher is teaching. I also think that some texts are designed to be hard reads with circuitous verse or logic, (Plato, anyone?), because the writer wants you to really pause and digest what you’re reading. It’s healthy brain exercise.

 

  1. Yes, some philosophers and their students may seem bullheaded or argumentative at times, but the end goal isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to be proven right. A philosopher’s quest is always to get to the truth of a particular belief or statement. This is where the Socratic Method comes in. As you can tell from its name, the Socratic Method refers to the teaching technique used by Socrates. Unlike most of today’s instructors, Socrates didn’t teach via key points and definitions. Instead, he taught by asking a lot, and I mean a lot of questions. It was his way of seeking truth. Naturally, this method annoyed a lot of powerful people during Socrates’ time, which eventually and unfortunately earned the philosopher his death sentence. Philosophers are truth-seekers, and sometimes this means pitting their beliefs against the beliefs of others as a way to check the strength and verity of their assumptions. Sincere philosophers will welcome being proven wrong if it means bringing them closer to the truth.

 

  1. We are all philosophers, sort of. Okay, so maybe very few of us have published books or articles on philosophy, and even fewer have earned MAs and PHDs in the field. But if you closely examine the foundations of many of our beliefs and principles, a lot of them are rooted, (at least partially), in some ancient philosophical movement. For example, in his book How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci points out the similarities between an Epictetus quote (Stoicism) and The Serenity Prayer. The Epictetus quote partially reads, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” Now, consider the start of The Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” See the similarities? This belief that we ought to recognize and focus our efforts on the areas that we can control is also one that transcends religion. It’s a nugget of wisdom that secularists also try to practice.

 

  1. Philosophy has a lot of practical everyday uses. Though it may not be as obviously practical as studying medicine or law, or any other empirical subject out here, Philosophy is NOT a useless endeavor. In fact, here’s a bit of trivia: Philosophy is the mother of all sciences. Modern science, as we know it, along with the study of logic (mathematics) and even language arose partially from the efforts of the ancient philosophers. So, that alone shows the importance of the subject. But what about its everyday uses? Well, from experience, studying the different branches of philosophy has made me more openminded and emphatic. I find that the more I study philosophy, the less inclined I am to make snap judgments about things and people. The discipline has also improved my critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills by pushing me to think logically and outside the box. And lastly and most importantly, it has inspired me to always try to do good by others. All fine things in my book.

Writing Exercise: A Book that Changed My Life

My 2010 Copy of Sophies WOrld
My tattered copy of Sophie’s World

Some books will make you smile for a moment, others will make you weep and ache for days—I’m looking at you, Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. But my favorites are the ones that stick with you forever, the ones that change the course of your life in one sitting. Now I’ve been fortunate enough to have read a number of life-changing books, and today, I’ll be featuring one of my earliest favorites—Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

It was one of my payday gifts to myself. The book had sat, fat, shiny, and bright blue on the cramped shelf, occupying more space than the other novels beside it. Price-wise, it was a bit more than what I’d pay for if I got another Penguin Classic. But I’m a sucker for hefty books in pretty packaging—one of my reading mottos being, “More pages = more bang for my buck.” So, with just a glance at the title and the author, Sophie’s World made its way home with me that night.

In case you haven’t read Sophie’s World, (a book I highly recommend but understand isn’t for everyone), here’s a bit of a warning: it reads more like a crash course on the history of philosophy than an actual work of fiction. Sure, the part that is fiction is very compelling and well-written, but the bulk of the book consists of philosophy lessons being fed via mail to the novel’s protagonist, 13-year-old Sophie Amundsen.

Now, this structure may be off-putting to other readers. And that’s fair. Most of the time, we pick up novels as a means to escape real life, not to be inundated by lengthy history and philosophy lessons. However, to me, Sophie’s World was the spark that started my lifelong love for Philosophy and Philosophy Books. Now, prior to this book, I have read and loved other think-reads from great authors like George Orwell, Milan Kundera, Alan Lightman, and Kurt Vonnegut. But Sophie’s World was the book that inspired me to really study philosophy. To read Plato, Sartre, and Kierkegaard (to name a few), to watch lectures, to take certificate courses in Coursera, and to listen to podcasts like The Partially Examined Life and Philosophy Bites.

By introducing me to philosophy, Sophie’s World has helped give direction to my life. It helped shape my life’s purpose, which is to keep learning, to constantly seek truth, and to always strive to do good. And for that, I am very grateful.

What about you? What’s one of your biggest literary game-changers?

Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions

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Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.

In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,

“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”

He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.

Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.

Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)

Read and enjoy.

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In Preparation for Spring Cleaning: The KonMari Tidying Order

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post about how a messy workplace affects a person’s creativity and productivity. While I’d like to think that the messy state of my life and my possessions is simply the manifestation of my, gulp, creative mind, 31 years of transforming living spaces into pig sties has taught me what productivity experts have been saying and rhyming for the last decade—MESS really does create STRESS.

I can’t begin to count and recount the multitude of anxiety attacks I’ve suffered over “losing” key items like my keys, my wallet, other people’s paychecks, and even a land title/car registration or two-wenty. I once ‘lost’ my mobile phone only to find it ringing in the fridge.

Now, I know, these things happen to the best of us. The unprecedented success of Mari Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is testament to how millions of people see the disorganized state of their affairs as a setback when it comes to their pursuit of productivity and happiness. Many of us perceive tidying as the hallelujah solution to most, if not all of our problems.

So, with spring, (and consequently, the period for Spring Cleaning), just around the corner, I thought it best to impart some of finest lessons I’ve learned from Mari Kondo’s ‘life-changing’ book—particularly the KonMari Tidying Order. I’m hoping that this will help you get a head start on your annual spring cleaning project too.

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Book Review: Good Benito by Alan Lightman

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Title: Good Benito
Author: Alan Lightman
Genre: Fiction, Bildungsroman
First Published: 1994, Pantheon Books

In a world where the everyman struggles to perfect one craft, Alan Lightman is one of those rare individuals whose immense talents lie in multiple fields. Not only is Lightman an award-winning novelist, he is also a celebrated physicist and social entrepreneur. In his fictional works, he deftly injects a touch of physics into the novel’s equation. His first novel, Einstein’s Dreams offers a whimsical and fictionalized take on a slice of Einstein’s life—featuring dreams that lead up to the theoretical physicist’s formulation of the theories of relativity.

Einstein’s Dreams was an absolute delight to read. Its stunning prose and breathtaking ideas left a serious and indelible imprint in my mind’s landscape. So it was with tremendous excitement that I turned to Lightman’s second novel, Good Benito.

Simply put, Good Benito is a non-linear account of the life of Bennett Lang, a physicist trying to make a name in the world of science and academics while struggling to comprehend and navigate the chaotic plane of human emotions and relationships. Each chapter reads like a vignette, showing an episode of Bennett’s life. We see his journey from an emotionally stunted child, creating his first ‘rocket,’ to an assistant professor for a second-tier college—still trying to find his place in the academic world.

Along the way, we meet a myriad of interesting, well fleshed-out, and incredibly flawed characters that helped shape Bennett’s viewpoint of the world. We meet his emotionally distant father who had dreamt of being a WWII hero but now wishes he had died with his men, his lonely mother trying to find happiness anywhere she can, his African American nanny who has let him into her life but refuses to let him into her house, his uncle with a severe gambling problem, and his self-destructive wife who pushes Bennett into becoming a cruel version of himself. We see how a promising romance and marriage devolves into an emotionally abusive relationship that ends in divorce.

All this, we witness through Lightman’s naked, prosaic, but impossibly precise prose. Though not as beautifully, or rather as poetically, written as Einstein’s Dreams, what makes Good Benito so compelling is how grounded the whole work feels. The matter-of-fact and yet introspective and eloquent manner by which Lightman writes ensures that the reader is along for the ride in this strikingly profound novel.

Rating: A+