Now that I have your attention, please know that the title of this article is not a threat. Instead it is sincere bit of hope and advice that you will take to heart. Ben Franklin once famously quipped that the only certainties in life were death and taxes. I can’t help you with your taxes, being barely able to fill out my own simple returns even with the help of TurboTax. It is a wonder the IRS hasn’t thrown me in chains yet. What I can help with is in the discussion of how to prepare for dying and how to use it’s inevitability as something that motivates us to live happier, more meaningful, and more fulfilling lives before that moment comes.
I am no expert in dying, no more than anyone else. I do have a reasonable amount of thoughts on the subject thanks my exposure to the thoughts of other wiser and more intelligent men and women, themselves no more acquainted with death at the time of their writings or speeches, who devoted a great deal of thought towards the subject of death. This article is not about the act of dying or what comes after, we can save that theoretical discussion for another day. This article is about how to use the certainty of death to add value, beauty, and meaning to the things we do in our lives; to encourage us to take advantage of what precious little time we do have; and to prioritize the most important aspects of our delicate lives.
Following significant victories, Roman Generals celebrated with spectacular parades called Triumphs where they marched through the city and were praised and honored by all. During these parades, it was common for a member of the General’s retinue to stand behind him and quietly whisper in Latin the phrase “memento mori”, remember you will die. The point was not to be a buzzkill or to be some harbinger of doom, but to keep the General feeling modest and grounded even amidst their greatest and most ego-gratifying moments. The idea is that we must remember that no matter how much we love ourselves or are loved by others, how great and extraordinary are our achievements, one day we will die and whether in a few years or a few generations, our selves and all of our achievements will have faded into mere memories or even into complete obscurity.
Roman Emperor and Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote “Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.” It didn’t matter if you were Alexander the Great himself, someone whom history still remembers today, or his mule driver, of whom very people may ever have bothered to learn his name, both are dead and gone and whether great or small their accomplishments are relegated to mere footnotes of history. Remember that you will die, and use that reminder to drive you not to the acquisition of fame, fortune, or applause, but to spend your time wisely doing work that is truly meaningful and impactful.
I recently participated in a self-exploration activity that I learned from Robin Sharma in his book “Everyday Heroes.” Robin called this activity the tombstone statement, and the objective was to write out what you would want your obituary or eulogy to say about you after you passed. I took about 20 minutes to think about it, and 20 more minutes or so to write out my proposed eulogy. I am going to keep the specifics of what I wrote personal but I can say that they did include: dying at a (very) old age; charitable organizations and programs I founded; adventures; conducting myself with integrity; and friends and family. What this did was allow me to look within myself and to truly see and understand that which was most important to me, especially when it may involve something I wasn’t aware might actually be so dear.
My wish to die old (165 was the age I used – we shall see) indicates that health and longevity are important to me. Ergo I must maintain a healthy diet, take care of my body with movement, stretching and exercise, and that I should be aware of advancements in science and medicine so that I can ensure I am doing all I can to not just live long but live well.
Establishing charitable organizations and programs would mean that I give my time in service of others and that I accumulate enough wealth so that I can then lend that wealth towards the betterment of others. This is a call to work hard but to do so without losing sight that the real value in work is in creating value for others, not merely financial value for myself. It reminds me of the importance which doing work and spending my life in service of others holds within my heart.
Having adventures mean saving money to enjoy those adventures but also being willing to step outside my comfort zone and to make temporary sacrifices in order to enjoy extraordinary and unusual experiences with people and places across the glove (and maybe across space – who knows).
Conducting myself with integrity means having a firm understanding of myself and of the type of person I wish to be. It means having goals for my character and understanding which principles are in line with my ideal self, such that when tested I know the best decision in any choice is the one that most honors my ideals.
Lastly, I described experiences with friends and family members, and that I wished – in the scenario of my hypothesized death – to be surrounded by friends and family at the moment of my passing. This indicates the importance of the relationships in my life. It is a call to remember to be present in their lives and to be vulnerable while also allowing those I care about to do the same. It is about being aware that fame, fortune, and applause will not comfort you in death nor make you feel proud of your short time on earth, but that those with whom you were close will. It wont be the things we did per se that matter, but the way we feel about those things and about the way we felt being around the people who were present when we did those things, those people who were with us through the memorable cinema worthy moments and the mundane and forgettable alike, and who remind us that those ordinary experiences with extraordinary people were really the most precious moments of the whole journey.
I would encourage each of you to do the tombstone exercise on your own and to take it seriously and slowly so that you get a meaningful use of your time. I did mine a few days ago and even since then it has been often on my mind, serving as a compass to guide me towards making the decisions that will lead me to the wonderful life I wrote about during this activity.
It is easy to get carried away chasing pleasure, accolades, to endeavor on pursuits that bolster our ego and swell our pride. Death can be frightening until when we recognize death as a necessary precondition for the experience of life. From there we realize that the finality of life, that it ends in death, is what gives it meaning. Without death there would be no need for urgency or action, anything we wanted could be postponed indefinitely. Nothing would seem as beautiful because in a state of eternal existence, there would always be not just the potential but perhaps the inevitability that something more wondrous and special would come along, and the beauty of the current moment would lose its luster. That life is finite in duration should comfort us as it encourages us to act, allows us to enjoy, and by its very nature of having an end gives meaning to the entire experience. As Seneca famously wrote “it is not that life is short but that we waste a great deal of it.” Do not waste any more time. Grow to understand that which is most meaningful to you and prioritize that. Remember that you will die. Memento Mori.