I celebrated my birthday this week. While I blew out the candles and toasted to my good health, I had in mind these two words: memento mori. In English, the Latin phrase means, “Remember death.”
Now, before you think I’m the world’s biggest party pooper, hear me out. The point of memento mori is not to be maudlin or morbid. On the contrary, it is meant to provide inspiration to embrace every day as a gift not to be wasted or taken for granted.
The inevitability of death has been recognized throughout the history of the world. It is a central theme in religion, art, architecture, music and literature. The phrase memento mori can be traced back to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. Socrates said the proper practice of philosophy “is about nothing else but dying and being dead.”
I always knew I wouldn’t live forever, but as I rounded the sun for the sixty-first time, it really started to sink in. Like Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I do not want to come to the end of life and discover I had not lived.”
Contemplating my mortality urges me to take Thoreau’s advice to simplify, simplify, simplify! The best place to start is with our physical possessions. Evangelist Billy Graham said, “I never saw a U-Haul behind a hearse.” What a good reminder that, in the end, we won’t be taking anything with us.
However, I’ve found stuff isn’t the most difficult thing to simplify, nor is it the only thing that fritters life away. Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” I shudder at the thought of how much time I’ve wasted doing things that had no real purpose, saying things that had no real meaning, and thinking about things I couldn’t control.
Memento mori reminds us our days are indeed numbered and helps us get crystal clear about our priorities. We can start with our possessions, but from there we must examine our behavior, pursuits, relationships, finances and attitude to see if they reflect what is truly important to us.
This constant awareness that life is short leads to living more intentionally. Intentional living means building your life around your core beliefs and values. Instead of acting on impulse, cruising on auto-pilot, following the herd or trying to impress, our daily life becomes more purposeful and authentic.
The best gift we can give ourselves is permission to spend the rest of our lives living each day as if it’s our last. This doesn’t mean shouting, “YOLO!” while doing something stupid or irresponsible. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Seneca said, “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let’s postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day.”
I’m excited to start the rest of my life with memento mori tatooed on my consciousness. To remember I must die inspires me to remember I must live. After all, as Thoreau reminded us, “Living is so dear.”