Memento Mori

Remember that you must die.

If there is one good thing to have come out of the societal upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic (actually there are many positives, which you can read more about here in a shameless plug of my own research) it is that many more people have paused to contemplate their lives and gain some perspective.

It seems apparent to me, from my interactions, observations, and introspections, that we all differ quite significantly in our capacity to contemplate life, the world, and the meaning of our existence within it.

There are likely numerous reasons for this, perhaps the foremost reason is simply an acracy to truly perpend matters of life and death, but I determine a predominant cause to be the haste with which we live our lives - beautifully explored in the poem Leisure by William Henry Davies. People in Western society are forever rushing somewhere, never content with where they find themselves in the present. Chasing something ever evasive; a larger house, a fancier car, a better holiday, a better-looking partner. I won't go into this any more as it's just cliché. But sometimes the obvious needs reiterating.

There's a good quote that I can't attribute to a particular individual that goes, "Wherever you go, there you are.” You can take that as you want, but I've always taken it to mean that no matter your problems, anxieties, worries, or discontents, you can't outrun them. Everything is within. Now that has limits, of course. I'd be the first to say that context matters, and I've found myself in situations or environments that made me extremely unhappy, and leaving those environments did indeed solve many of my woes. Nevertheless, the fundamental root cause of any distress is our reaction to it, and if you can't learn to control the controllable and your emotional responses, then wherever you go the cycle will repeat. Fortunately, for me, the cycle hasn't repeated - which did reveal that sometimes you do simply need to change the circumstances, which I suppose in itself is controlling the controllable (n.b. important not to become obsessed with control).

It's hard to contemplate life if you're forever occupying yourself with busyness and distractions. It's hard to zero in on what matters when all of the things we are told to be concerned about are utterly artificial or plain fictitious. Non-issues conjured up by marketers, multinationals, and banks - the dark shamans of capitalism. We get so caught up in the web of lies, narratives, and irrelevancies that we forget to live the experience of life itself.

I think that if we awoke every morning and sat quietly with our first brew (without first unconsciously checking the news or our social media updates) to contemplate the ephemeral nature of life, we would all be a lot happier and nicer to each other. I don't believe you should need a date in the diary marked "DEATH" in big, block, red letters to understand that we are, all of us, walking in the same direction. The when is irrelevant. It is inconsequential. The fact is, it is coming. Second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour1.

Maybe you're reading, thinking, "Jesus Christ Sam! When is this newsletter going to lighten up!? First, you tell us that our precious Olympics is simply a global political war game for wealthy nations, then you tell us we need to give away our books to save ourselves from our ego, now we should be thinking about death every morning!"

For some bizarre reason, talking about death is relatively taboo in our society. Worse, death is beginning to be seen by many as though it is a disease for which a cure should be found, a terrible affliction that we should be able to fend off with our demigod ingenuity. Some almost seem to view it as unfair. In 2021, the age of COVID-19, news bulletins profess the deaths of individuals aged ninety years plus as a tragedy.

Death itself is not a tragedy. Death is death. Death is not evil. Everything dies. You, me, your parents, your children, and your cat. Yes, I'm stating the obvious and we all know this. But why do so many act like they don't? Things fall apart. No doubt, the context or circumstances of a death can be devastating - that needs no explaining. However, as a society, I see it as foolish that we vilify death.

“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”

Marcus Aurelius

We have forgotten the impermanence of everything, and this forgetfulness does nothing but causes us distress. Burying your head in the sand about the issue of death, and the fact that it is an unavoidable aspect of life does not help one too live well and achieve eudaimonia.

It is madness to deny death and to not comprehend the reality that at some point soon you will cease to exist in entirety. Not long ago, I did not exist in any form. Nobody, including myself, cared much about that fact. Then I came into existence (for reasons still unbeknownst to me) and soon enough, I will again cease to exist. Why would I feel upset or worried about the fact that I will shortly return to a non-existent state? It isn't rational. The natural order of things determines that I am to briefly live in this form and then return into oblivion. The energy thus being converted into other materials. What a bizarre and wonderful, random series of events.

I believe that acceptance of our fates is a liberating act that enables a life to be lived without fear. Admittedly, accepting that life is fleeting and at its core meaningless does allow me to think that nothing really matters at all. However, I avoid becoming nihilistic by realising the power that is granted by living a short life of consequence to my self and of those alive around me. Just as the fear of non-existence is irrational, it is equally irrational to live in anger, in depression, and anxiously. That is an unconscious way to move through life and a negative, unvirtuous choice of detriment to your self and those whom have the misfortune of interacting with you. It’s just plain old bad juju.

Accepting and musing on your non-existent state provokes a deep self-analysis and reflection, hopefully culminating in a “'knowledge of self.” I'm sidetracking here, kinda, but because I feel I should share this deeply contemplative poetry by two of the greatest, and my favourite, hip hop emcees to have lived - Mos Def and Talib Kweli.

"Knowledge of self is like life after death,

With that you never worry about your last breath,

Death comes, that's how I'm livin', it's the next days

The flesh goes underground, the book of life, flip the page

Yo they askin' me how old, we livin' the same age...

At exactly which point do you start to realize

That life without knowledge is death in disguise?

That's why, knowledge of self is like life after death

Apply it, to your life, let destiny manifest…

The most important time in history is, now, the present

So count your blessings cause time can't define the essence

But you stressin' over time and you follow the Roman calendar…"

There's so much to be analysed in those elegiacal verses, and of course, the song is predominantly a tale of Black American strife in a highly unequal nation, but the main takeaway for me has always been the universal truth that all we ever really have is the present moment, age is irrelevant (yo they asking me how old, we live in the same age), living a life without pensive reflection is to be living like the walking dead. Acceptance of the impermanence of life and your own evanescent experience enables you to live peacefully. As Plato is purported to have lectured "the unexamined life is not worth living”. I believe it is true.

It seems apparent to me that we've got a lot of people running around, keeping busy, doing things, but rarely, if ever, examining why, and worse not stopping to contemplate what it's all about. Nobody knows of course, and even if you do think about it you won't find the answers, but the point is to at least try to live what is a good life, an examined life, and to not fear death.

Our immense societal fear of death has been well exemplified throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In this article, I won't bother espousing my views on this in-depth, but what I will say is I think we've had nothing more than a reaction of fear and need to control. I think it's safe to say that whenever we try to control things, something worse always comes about as the result down the line... that's perhaps a clue into my mindset on the idea of "progress", which again is probably better fit for another article.

I suppose I take a great amount of solace from the Stoics and others who’ve adopted similar viewpoints regarding death as it provides such a sedate view of things as they are. If there’s one thing I want to have, well at least want to be striving to achieve, it is clarity of mind. Seeing things as they really are. Some people call that truth.

1

If you must have a ball park idea of when you’ll bite the dust, put your deets into this.


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