If we take our cue from Silicon Valley, there’s no reason to fear dying — or even think about death — because soon enough we’ll all live forever.
By the headlines, it might seem like Peter Thiel is on the cusp of finding the key to eternal life and that startups will soon succeed in making us immortal. One of the co-founders of Google hopes to “cure death” and the tycoon behind Oracle finds the idea of accepting our mortality as “incomprehensible.”
Not only we will live forever, they seem to believe, but we will be part of “the Singularity,” merging with artificial intelligence and transcending our mere human limitations. And, God forbid we don’t get there soon enough, if we do die, we will be frozen in liquid nitrogen and re-awaken when the quest to immortality has been reached.
The rest of us, even if we don’t believe that humans will suddenly be merged with computers, would still rather avoid thinking about death. It’s unpleasant. It’s scary. It’s sad. Why would anyone want to think about the thing they don’t want to happen.
The truly wise know that both those mindsets are misguided. They know the secret: that death is not something to be avoided or fought, but embraced. And that doing so is actually a formula for great insights, breakthroughs and wisdom.
Memento Mori: Remember you are mortal. It was this powerful idea that fueled the ancient Stoics, that transformed Montaigne from an indulgent rich man to a great writer and thinker who would write volumes of popular essays, who’d serve two terms as mayor, travel internationally as a dignitary, and serve as a confidante of the king. It’s the motivation of the great forms of the 17th century artwork called vanitas.
Death doesn’t make life pointless; knowing it’s there creates priority and thinking about it gives you perspective. So you can focus on what’s important. Below are seven reminders adapted from The Daily Stoic to help you find inspiration in your own mortality and think differently about death.
Spendthrifts of time.
“Were all the geniuses of history to focus on this single theme, they could never fully express their bafflement at the darkness of the human mind. No person would give up even an inch of their estate, and the slightest dispute with a neighbor can mean hell to pay; yet we easily let others encroach on our lives — worse, we often pave the way for those who will take it over. No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.” — Seneca
Each day there will be endless interruptions: phone calls, emails, visitors, unexpected events. Booker T. Washington observed that “the number of people who stand ready to consume one’s time, to no purpose, is almost countless.” A philosopher, on the other hand, knows that these intrusions prevent us from doing the thinking and work we were put here to do. This is why they so diligently protect their personal space and thoughts from trespassers and needy neighbors. They know that a few minutes of contemplation are worth more than any meeting or report. They also know how little time we’re actually given in life — and how quickly our stores can be depleted.
It was the passing of a friend that reminded entrepreneur and investor Tim Ferriss how “too often, we spend time focusing on the trivial with people who contribute nothing but their own self-interest.” We must resist this, and instead prioritize and shun distractions — as Peter Drucker, one of the greatest business minds of the last century put it, “Force yourself to set priorities. Do first things first – and second things not at all.” Why would you do that if you think time is infinite? If you think you have time for it all, you’ll end up doing a lot of things you don’t need to do.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca reminds us that while we might be good at protecting our physical property, we are far too lax at enforcing our mental boundaries. Property can be regained; there is quite a bit of it out there — some of it still untouched by man. But time? Time is our most irreplaceable asset—instead of striving to make more of it, we can far more easily just stop wasting so much of it.
The prophecy that never fails.
“Let each thing you would do, say or intend be like that of a dying person.” — Marcus Aurelius
Have you ever heard someone ask: “What would you do if you found out tomorrow that you had cancer?” The question is designed to make you consider how different life might be if you were suddenly given just a few months or weeks to live. There’s nothing like a terminal illness to wake people up.
But here’s the thing: You already have a terminal diagnosis. We all do! As the writer Edmund Wilson put it, “Death is one prophecy that never fails.” Every person is born with a death sentence. Elon Musk joked after his near-death experience on a vacation, “That’s my lesson for taking a vacation: Vacation will kill you.” You never know when it can happen but you know it will happen.
Steve Jobs, in his famous commencement speech, said that “death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent.” As he would put it later in the speech, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
So far, no one has ever escaped it — though a lot of people have spent incredible amounts of their time trying to (only to end up like all the others). Meanwhile, the people who were given a wakeup call about their mortality? They squeezed more life into those remaining years than they had in all the others before.
Pretend today is the end.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” — Seneca
“Live each day as if it were your last” is a cliché. Plenty say it, few actually do it. How reasonable would that be anyway? Surely Seneca isn’t saying to forsake laws and considerations — to find some orgy to join because the world is ending.
A better analogy would be a soldier about to leave on deployment. Not knowing whether they’ll return or not, what do they do?
They get their affairs in order. They handle their business. They tell their children or their family that they love them. They don’t have time for quarreling or petty matters. And then in the morning they are ready to go — hoping to come back in one piece but prepared for the possibility that they might not.
Let us live today the same way. Because as Steve Jobs put it, “If you live each day as it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” And even if somehow, you weren’t, it would still be a better existence than the person who makes the risky bet on living forever.
Coming to terms with ‘the Tragic Triad.’
“Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long as you live and while you can, become good now.” — Marcus Aurelius
Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor, observed three universal facts about human existence. He said, “There is no human being who may say that he has not failed, that he does not suffer, and that he will not die.” It is this “Tragic Triad” that defines every one of our lives, does it not? That might seem like reason for despair. Suffering, failure and death.
In one of the great futuristic sci-fi novels, “The City and The Stars,” death is transcended, but at what cost? Almost everything that makes life worth living. There are no young children running about, no sense of adventure or danger, just indolence and safety.
What Frankl found was that the Tragic Triad was where meaning comes from. Without death, life just is. Without failure, there is no learning. Without suffering, there is no pleasure or purpose.
Instead of judging this reality or trying to cheat it, we should say instead, “Ok, if that’s how it is, I will try to make the most of my lot.” If we do this, we will find — though certainly not easily — that it is from failure, struggle and death that meaning is produced. It’s death that gives life urgency. It’s failure that teaches us lessons. It’s suffering that shows us who we are.
Don’t run from these three facts. Don’t label them tragic. Face them.
You could leave life right now.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”— Marcus Aurelius
Earlier this year, I felt myself getting a little complacent. I felt like I was stuck in my routine, that I was doing the same things over and over as if my life would go on forever.
I went on 99designs and had my own Memento Mori designed, something I could carry with me everywhere. It’s a two-sided coin.
On the front it, it has a rendering of Philippe de Champaigne painting “Still Life with a Skull,” which shows the three essentials of existence — the tulip (life), the skull (death), and the hourglass (time).
On the back, it has Marcus Aurelius’s quote: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Except I cut off the last part — as a reminder that there isn’t even time to go through the whole line. Then I sent it off to be produced at a mint that was old before my grandparents were even born. (You can get your own version of the coin here if you want one.)
The point is urgency. Appreciation. Humility. The present moment. It doesn’t matter who you are or how many things you have left to be done, a car can hit you in an intersection and drive your teeth back into your skull. Even if life was radically lengthened — you could still be murdered. You could still fall off a cliff. That would be it. It could all be over. Today, tomorrow, someday soon.
Too many people realize the preciousness of life only at the end of their lives. This is why today — before you go on living your life — think about how short it really is. The Stoics understood how critical it is to remind ourselves of our own mortality. Why? It helps us reorient our priorities, realize how petty our concerns are and how wasteful we’ve been of our time. With death constantly “on our lips” as Montaigne put it, or with, as Shakespeare said, every third thought on our grave, we have an easier time rejecting pointless trivialities and we develop a keen sense of priority and time.
Feeling sorry for yourself is unnatural.
“It’s better to conquer grief than to deceive it.” — Seneca
My wife and I have a farm outside Austin, Texas. A while back our favorite goose mysteriously went missing. It was almost certainly killed and eaten by some predator. A few months prior to that, our beloved pet donkey was seriously injured fighting off a mountain lion. Thankfully he survived, but it was a reminder in how fragile life is, and of course, a raw moment which revealed just how much we love those animals.
Yet, it was also a chance for a Stoic lesson and a reminder about morality. We might have felt sad for the goose, but certainly the goose felt no anxiety about death or the afterlife. Her companions seem to hardly notice she is gone. The donkey looked pitiful for some time, but really, besides the scabs and scars, he was perfectly happy. Of everyone “involved” in the events, it was ironically the humans who seemed to be traumatized the most.
When we suffer and feel emotional, it’s worth remembering D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “Self-Pity”:
“I never saw a wild thing
Sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
Without ever have felt sorry for itself.”
A psychologist might question the immense amount of energy that Ray Kurzweil has put into the Singularity, which he has said is an attempt to reconnect with his lost father. This is a touching mission — but at what cost has it come? Has this very smart man lost time living in the present hoping for a future that will take him backwards into the past?
The Stoics talk a lot about grief. They know that it is real and they certainly wouldn’t pretend that avoiding it completely is advisable, or even possible. But they always loved reminders that self-pity and getting overly emotional and trying to change what has already happened wasn’t productive. That it wasn’t natural either — and that we can find inspirations for strength and fortitude everywhere, even in a little bird or a donkey.
Cherish what you have.
How did you feel reading those? Hopefully invigorated and inspired to seize each and every day and remember how fleeting our time really is. I tap into that feeling each time I touch the totem in my pocket, each time I think of Seneca’s reminder, “Whatever you do, keep death in mind.” It’s made me better—made me more alive.
And before you go, one last thing. It’s scary to think that we will someday die. What of our family, we think? What of our possessions, our potential, and our plans? Death in this way, is a great loss.
The poet Lucretius described it in haunting language: “Never again will your dear children race for the prize of your first kisses and touch your heart with pleasure too profound for words.” What we forget, of course, is pointed out in the next line. “You will not care, because you will not exist.” Jack London, speaking like a Stoic, has an equally clever and profound line. With death, he says, man “does not lose anything, for with the loss of himself, he loses the knowledge of loss.”
This article was originally published on Business Insider.
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