Memento Mori – How Remembering Your Mortality Improves Your Life
Why on earth would I write about death? – I’m 25 and free of disease.
It’s because of Ryan Holiday. He reminded me of my mortality. Death is inevitable. Even for superhumans like Robert Downey Jr., LeBron James, or Caesar.
So, in his fantastic book The Obstacle is the Way Ryan Holiday tells this 16th century story of French nobleman Michel de Montaigne who was given up as dead after being flung from a galloping horse. To keep it short: Monsieur de Montaigne didn’t die and changed his life for the better.
It’s a story as old as time. Man nearly dies, he takes stock, and emerges from the experience a completely different, and better, person. – Ryan Holiday
And turns out, you don’t need to nearly die to actually milk death’s benefits and change your life for the better.
You only need to remind yourself that you are going to die. Every day.
Why do I need to be reminded? I know that I’ll die someday.
Yes, you know that you’ll die eventually, but just not any time soon or when you don’t want it, right?
We may not say it, but deep down we act and behave like we’re invincible. Like we’re impervious to the trials and tribulations of mortality. That stuff happens to other people, not to me. I have plenty of time left. – Ryan Holiday
Me, too. Even right now writing this I feel like I’m going to live forever…
Intellectually, we know that we’re mortal. Emotionally, we feel invincible.
And that explains why we live like we’re living:
- Working half-assedly
- Being obsessed over trivialities
- Playing Boom Beach
- Watching clown prank videos
The fact that we’re mortal does not affect our behavior and decision-making. But it could. And it could help us enjoy life a heck of a lot more. If only we reminded ourselves of it. Just like the Romans did with their saying:
Memento Mori – Remember you are mortal.
Here are 6 reasons why we should remind ourselves of our mortality and develop death-awareness.
1. Death-Awareness Helps You Focus on the Important
When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. – Samuel Johnson
Luckily, you’re not going to be hanged any time soon. However, as Ryan Holiday reminds us so nicely, “a car can hit you in an intersection and drive your teeth back into your skull. That’s it. It will all be over. Today, tomorrow, someday soon.”
That’s not being pessimistic, it’s just creating death-awareness. And this helps us focus on the essential.
I definitely need to focus more on the important, how else could I explain wasting 10 minutes of my life on the article ‘20 Hottest WAGs (You wouldn’t believe #7)’??
In the shadow of death, prioritization is easier. – Ryan Holiday
With death in your neck you’re not going to waste time playing Boom Beach but you rather figure out what you need to do and do it. You try to fit in as much of the beauty of life as possible before the clock strikes death.
If you only had 24 hours to live, what would you do?
You’d do all the things that bring you most joy, certainly not watching freaking clowns scaring people… Look, I know that we can’t live life like we’re going to die tomorrow, otherwise we couldn’t hold a normal job. All I’m saying is that with death-awareness it’s easier to focus. It may be to focus at work and get shit done instead of holding skin deep conversations with people we don’t even like… Or to focus on listening to a person we actually care about. Or to focus on anything that is actually important in our lives.
Memento Mori – It’ll help you focus on the essential.
2. Death-Awareness Creates Urgency
Time is limited.
You’re not going to live forever. Realize that you can die any time soon and let it create urgency. Get shit done. Don’t waste your life doing stuff that won’t make you happy in the long-run.
You’re on a deadline.
You want to travel the world? Don’t wait until the time is right. It’s never right. Don’t wait for retirement. You’ll be dead by the then.
Tell that girl what you feel for her. Tell your mum & dad what you feel for them.
Feel the urgency of life. Do the truly important things rather sooner than later.
If you were dead tomorrow, what would you regret? Is there something that you always wanted to do but just didn’t do it? (Here’s an article of the top 5 regrets of people on their deathbed.)
(This exercise made me think and I just wrote in our bromance group chat to my best mates that I love them and that they’re the best. I hope this doesn’t scare the shit out of them…)
Life can be over soon. So do the things you really want to do. Many of those don’t take long or are super expensive; it doesn’t need to be a year-long travel or buying a Ferrari.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. – Annie Dillard
This is not about hurrying through the days, but about doing things rather today than tomorrow. Forget about postponing your passions and dreams.
Memento Mori – It’ll create urgency.
3. Death-Awareness Gives You Perspective
We are nothing.
At least if we look at the big picture.
Here’s British scientist Richard Dawkins’ imaginative exercise that shall make you clear how much nothing we are (I learned about it in Gregg Levoy’s book Vital Signs):
Spread your arms wide. The tip of your left hand marks the beginning of evolution and the tip of your right hand marks today. The span from the tip of your left hand all the way to your right shoulder brings forth nothing more than bacteria. The first invertebrates make their entrance near your right elbow. The dinosaurs appear in the middle of your right palm, and die out near your outermost finger joint. Homo erectus and homo sapiens appear at the white part of your fingernails. And all of recorded human history - the Cro-Magnon caves of Europe, the god-kings of Assyria and Mesoamerica, all the spreading trade routes and codified laws and languages of the world, the rise of nation-states and the fall of the Roman empire, right up to the Rolling Stones and reality TV - all of it would be erased by the single stroke of a nail file.
How does this help us?
If you look at the big picture you’ll realize that you’re one small tiny dot in an infinite universe. And still, you are part of the game. Enjoy your time and make the most of it.
Think of the universe as a 90-minute soccer game. You’re the substitute who comes on 30 seconds before the final whistle. Instead of complaining about it and feeling miserable about yourself until the whistle blows, you might want to enjoy it. It’s all you get. You can still score and leave your footprints…
The most valuable lesson of your life is the lesson of your utter insignificance. It puts your existence into its proper perspective, and the more you learn about your own size, the more humble and the more compassionate you become; the more you’re charged with life, emotions, joys, fears, compassion. – Joseph Brodsky
Memento Mori – It’ll give you perspective.
4. Death-Awareness Lets You Be Present
Time is limited.
Death is ticking.
Imagine you had a death clock inside you. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Death is coming closer. Every second. Now think you’re having dinner with your loved ones. With your family, or your best friends, or just your brother. And you can hear death coming. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. You’re not scared. You’re just present. Maybe it’s the last time you spend time with them. Feel it. Be there. Suck it in.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
Do you blow the present moment on low-value activities like mindlessly watching TV, surfing the web, or complaining about trivialities?
No. Hell no!
Death is just around the corner.
You’re ultra present. You’re physically and mentally in the same place. Your focus lies here and now. Just at your forehead. You can feel your presence. You set yourself on wide-angle and take in everything. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
. . .
I’m smiling as I write this, because I can actually feel my presence.
And hey, this is not to make you scared of death, but to actually live life right. With ultra-presence.
Just like when you go on a 2-week vacation. Time passes unconsciously until your final day. That’s when you realize, “shit, time’s running” and you enjoy and take in everything for the last 30 minutes on the beach. That’s how you could have enjoyed your holiday from day 1 on…
Every moment is a once in a lifetime moment. And maybe it’s the last. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
Memento Mori – It’ll help you be ultra present.
5. Death-Awareness Is Liberating
You are mortal.
And you are free.
Death is inevitable. So why not live like it? I’m not suggesting you jump off cliffs, eat poisonous food, or duel your arch-enemy. The fact that we’re mortal shall not be an excuse for behaving wrongly and not looking after our health.
Realizing that death is certain can liberate us from fear, guilt, and self-criticism.
I’m scared to go and talk to that girl. Or, maybe I’m not scared, but I just find a hundred excuses for not going to talk to her. HECK! I’m not going to live forever. Fuck it. The worst that could happen is that she stands up, shouts at me, and pours her hot coffee all over me. – Pha! That’s nothing. “Hey, what’s your name?”
Yeah, we live in a movie. And we’re the director. And the main character. And the camera man. We’re all in one. We decide where to zoom in, what to do, and how to do it. We let it rain if we want. It’s your life movie. You’re free. You control and decide everything, everything except death. It strikes somewhen and somehow.
So, how would you like your life movie?
Memento Mori – It’ll liberate you.
6. Death-Awareness Makes You Grateful
Even though we’re mortal, right now we’re alive.
Every moment could be the last. So let’s be grateful for every second we get. Don’t take life for granted. It’s a precious gift.
When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love. – Marcus Aurelius
Think about Michel de Montaigne and how he must have felt after the near-death moment. “Still alive! What a gift.”
Try this: Everything you do, see, or feel, imagine it’s the last time you experience it. Not in a melancholic way, but in an appreciative way. Take it in and be grateful for it.
If you drink an ice coffee, how much better does it taste if you think it’s the last time you drink that? Or if you play cards with your friends, how magic is that moment? Or if you walk along the beach… feel the sand between your toes, listen to the waves, and smell the fresh sea breeze. Try to savor that moment. It may be the last time you experience it.
Memento Mori – It’ll make you more grateful.
Death doesn’t make life pointless, but rather purposeful. And, fortunately, we don’t have to nearly die to tap into this energy. – Ryan Holiday
Death-awareness is a gift.
It’s not to focus on our mortality, but to focus on our life.
We are going to die somewhen in the future. Tomorrow, in six months, in 10 years, or in a hundred years. We don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. What matters is how we’re living right now. That’s the whole point. Death-awareness makes us live more.
We have the chance to live right now. We can do what we’re meant to do and be who we’re meant to be.
Life is now.
Life is not somewhere in the future where everything will be better. Life is right here and now. Because tomorrow we’ll be dead.
Memento Mori, my friend.
Great post !! Congratulations!! Will try to stick to it everyday, every moment. Thank you.
This post is amazing. I’m 75 and it opened my eyes to many things, including possibilities, time limitations and what I still want to accomplish.
Fortunately, I don’t get worked up much anymore. For a long time now, after trying to see every eventuality before some monumental event, I’ve concluded that life isn’t about what happens to you, but how you deal with it. Righteous indignation and fury are a waste of needed energy and mental clarity. Foreseeing the worst case scenario doesn’t leave me vulnerable to the Fickle Finger of Fate. I have a plan to deal with the worst shit, instead of being blindsided by it and catapulted into the shit.
Thank you for your insights and wisdom.
I’m glad you could get something out of this, even at 75 🙂
Yeah, couldn’t agree more – Life’s about how you deal with whatever happens. And foreseeing the worst is definitely helpful in many ways.
Thanks for sharing this!
After two very close family deaths within the last month, one of them which I witnessed, I’ve been left contemplating everything, the idea of life being pointless being one of them. This is a particularly brutal concept when you are a parent. I have to thank you so much having found this article as this has focused me and I sincerely hope to regain the positivity I thought I had lost. I have a copy of Holiday’s “The Daily Stoic” waiting to be read and am now away to do just that. Again, thank you.
I am sorry for your loss.
And I’m glad this article gave back hope to regain positivity.
I’m positive you’ll find help in Ryan Holiday’s book. I think many of its quotes are very helpful.
Here’s quickly what the Stoics say to grief:
Some grief is required. Proper grief according to Seneca is when our reason “will maintain a mean which will copy neither indifference nor madness, and will keep us in the state that is the mark of an affectionate, and not an unbalanced, mind.”
We should let the tears flow, but let them also cease. Because at some point the cost of grief will outweigh what caused it in the first place.
Ryan talks about grief in his book 11 June and 8 December.
All the best!
Came across your wonderful article while doing research for an art project idea for Burning Man 2019:
“Mementomorium—A Celebration Of Being Mortal” that last week was selected by Burning Man Honoraria Committee to submit a full application for 2019 Art Grant!
And congrats on your project – sounds wonderful!
Wonderful post! “Memento Mori” is one of the warmest and sincerest wishes one can express. Full of beauty and well explained here. Words cannot express how much loved this post.
Thanks so much 🙂
I lost my father-in-law shortly after I came across your article. I was very impressed with the daily clothes she left behind and the calls on her cell phone being missed. He left everything and left. Life is so cruel that it is more painful to live with the illusion that it will never die.
Sorry to hear about the death of your father-in-law.
I wish you much strength and love.
Hi Jonas! I read your Memento Mori post at the beginning of Oct 2019. I took an inventory list of how I was spending my time, how I actually wanted to be spending my time, and what my bucket list life goals were. It was an eye opener for me. I realized I had lost sight of the real reasons I had set out on my path and I needed to make time to explode my piano. I exploded the piano on Halloween of 2019. It was top of my bucket list. I exploded the piano before I wrote the song to accompany said explosion. When the words came out it was about the concept of Momento Mori. I actually named the song precisely that. The entire process was inspired by your article. I just referred a friend to your article this evening and thought I should reach out and say thank you. You’re writing is incredibly inspiring and makes ripples in time. May you explode all your pianos. All the best! -Ami-
Hi Ami – thank you so much for sharing this story with us.
I’m curious to hear that song you wrote 🙂
And thank you for your generous support.
May we all do what we believe to be most important in our lives.
All the best 🙂