Editor’s note: This article was set to be published last Monday. But that was right on the heels of the deaths in Beirut and Paris and Mali. While the message is very relevant in the face of the uncertainty of life, it seemed just a little too close to the moment.
The term used in the article, memento mori, means “Remember that you will die.” It often refers to the practice of regularly reflecting on one’s own death to clarify perspectives on the present.
I have never traveled alone, at least not in the last 18 years. Most of my travel has been for family vacations, and when I have traveled for work, the children have found a way to come along.Fear and Uncertainty
A few weeks ago though, they could not. Their school was in full swing, and I needed to travel for a couple of weeks. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for my three younger ones, it was, magnified by the fact that their oldest sister was away at university and their father was also traveling for work. They felt vulnerable, and I could see fear writ large on their faces. In the days building up to the trip, I often caught them with woeful expressions searching for reassurance.
It was perhaps the general atmosphere of uncertainty, but somehow the trip began to haunt me. Terrifying thoughts are easy for me to summon on any occasion. Add to that the general fear around flying, and pretty soon I was foreseeing my own demise! If I were to die, I thought, how will my children cope? What memories will they have of me? What legacy do I want to leave behind?
Death certainly makes us uncomfortable. The desire to live on even after we die is why we form world-views through religion, nationalism, human rights, our work, or whatever other mechanism allows us to evade the shadow of personal apocalypse.But I discovered that something wonderful happens when we move beyond our defense mechanisms. People who have had near-death experiences can report a renewed energy for life. People sadly confronted with news of cancer can turn toward life with purpose and engagement after the initial grieving period.
My experience sounds insignificant (almost absurd) in comparison, but believe me it felt very real at the time. In those two weeks that I was forced to think of never coming back, I felt something shift within me. I became aware of the beauty of my world and the needs that I had become immune to. I marveled at the wonder of my children and their boundless energy, creativity, and love. I even began to notice my own gifts that I had hitherto played down in a peculiar combination of self-doubt and humility. If I had a chance to continue with my life, I promised myself, I’d live fully and consciously.
Back to Day-to-Day Life
As you’ve guessed, I came back intact. But the fear averted, I soon slipped back into the banality of chores and busyness. It was difficult to summon back the spiritual energy that I had briefly experienced. It seemed to have vanished with the thoughts of death. Somewhere deep down, I missed the life it had shown me.In some ways this is very strange. After all, nothing is more certain than that we will die. The last time any of us checked, the death rate still stood at a 100%. Nor can any technology calculate the time we have left in this world. It is odd that we find it hard to think about the most certain thing we know.
I wondered whether this was because we are optimistic to the extent of being disillusioned with the wonder of death. I could see a place for that optimism. It is perhaps the only way we can live in the face of the terrifying knowledge that our end is inescapable. But I wondered whether it was also beneficial to spend at least some time every day consciously thinking about my death.Considering a Possible Disaster from Space
As all this was churning in my mind, something new was added to the mix by pure chance. The twins had been studying the last ice age in class, and on this particular day, had watched a short video clip about a large asteroid hitting our planet unexpectedly. As we discussed it over lunch, my daughter threw me an unexpected question.
“What would you do if you knew that an asteroid was going to hit our planet in two years time?”
It was a tough one. The time frame was too short to have future aspirations, and yet long enough to continue living rather than merely preparing for disaster. But what kind of life would that be? What goals would I have? As I thought about it, many worthy pursuits suddenly seemed meaningless. Would I really be interested in artistic expression if all of humanity was to be wiped out? Would I really be interested in living on in people’s memories if they were all going to die with me? Would I really be interested in making a difference to the planet if it were to be blown to bits anyway? Did that mean that most of my pursuits would be short-term and hedonistic? It seemed to make sense.
But I was not satisfied. Something deeper within me didn’t care about my own selfish life. Something much more profound remained convinced that there was a purpose to my existence. It was that something that did not try to extract meaning out of every experience, but held onto the faith that by giving myself fully to life, meaning will eventually emerge.
Memento Mori in Action
I knew then that I would live my life the way I had promised to do in the two weeks prior to my trip. Whatever part of me wanted to cling on to the idea of immortality felt weak in the face of an intense desire to truly engage with life and live by what mattered to me.We have that powerful desire within us. We yearn to be faithful to our gifts and to honor our responsibilities regardless of what mystery the future withholds. But the more we live like machines, driven by the ideal of efficiency, the more we drive the mystery out and fill our lives with small pursuits that bring little lasting fulfillment.
There are many ways of connecting with this deeply human, perhaps divine quality within us. We are moved by a beautiful piece of music, We experience awe in nature and rapture in art. We feel elevated when witnessing acts of human goodness. We find peace in mindfulness, healing through writing, and meaning in philosophy and literature. But there was one more way of becoming whole.
By engaging with death, not as a woeful finality, but as a way of living fully, wisely, and wholeheartedly, we become who we are meant to be.
Algoe, S. & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: the ‘other-praising’ emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. Journal of Positive Psychology. 4(2). 105-127. Link to a page where you can request the article.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
McGilchrist. I. The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning. Yale University Press.
Palmer, P. J. (2000). Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. New York: Jossey-Bass.
Sharot, Tali (2011). The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. Pantheon Books Inc./Random House.
Shiota, M. & Keltner, D. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion. 21(5), 944-963.