One day, you are going to die.
Let me rephrase that because we often hear this fact, but our brains have a habit of easily dismissing it.
At some indeterminable but inevitable point in your future, you will cease to exist as you do right now. There’s no reason you couldn’t die today or tomorrow or next week. You can’t plan for it.
Almost every day, we strap ourselves into death-machines and barrel down the road with hundreds of other people in similar death-machines.
Any moment, something could go wrong (in your body or in your environment) that causes your body to stop functioning forever.
I know death is unpleasant to think about, but it’s going to happen to all of us. And, in my opinion, it might be the most beneficial fact that we could contemplate.
Constantly reminding yourself that this life is finite, that there is a definite end-point that we are rushing toward every day, puts everything into perspective. It forces us to question our routines, our daily activities, our plans for the future, everything that we do. Is it important? Will it last?
I think about death several times every day because I’ve found that this practice has a beneficial effect on my life. Some people think it’s a waste of time to think about death or that it doesn’t accomplish anything except making you sad or that it distracts you from the good things in life. But, to the contrary, I’ve found that contemplating death makes my life more enjoyable, more productive, and more fulfilling.
Monks during the Middle Ages used to place a human skull on their desks to remind them of the final fate of their physical bodies. This skull was called a “memento mori” (literally: remember [that you have] to die): a constant reminder of death.
I like to imagine myself on my death bed. Not in a flippant way; the more vivid the image, the better. Sometimes, I close my eyes and try to engage all 5 senses in the exercise. What does the room smell like? What do the bedsheets feel like? What can I hear? A heart monitor? Nurses murmuring? Who is standing around my bed?
Then, of course, I try to imagine what I will be thinking about at that moment. Which memories will jump out at me and make me smile? Which events in my life won’t even register in my mind at the moment of death? How will I be remembered? Et cetera, et cetera.
Usually, what I experience after a visualization like this is either a sense of calm or a sense of urgency about where I am in my life right now. If I’m calm, that means I’m on the right track. If I feel urgent, that means there’s something I need to do. I question my current activities: will what I’m doing right now be important to me at the end of my life? Will it last?
I also use cemeteries as a memento mori. Whenever I’m in the car or on a bus and I pass a cemetery, I take that as an opportunity to contemplate the flimsiness of my life, how quickly it will pass. I enjoy walks through cemeteries even more. I like looking at each individual grave and thinking about the lives they suggest.
I did this last weekend, actually. I was walking through the woods and just happened to stumble upon a small, rural graveyard. It was in the middle of nowhere and wasn’t very well-managed. Some of the gravestones consisted only of a piece of aluminum the size of a notecard with a name and date scratched into it, presumably by a surviving loved one. Other gravestones were completely unreadable, faded by time.
I thought about all of the forgotten lives that lay here. Who were these people? What did they leave behind them? Some of them probably left nothing except vague memories in the minds of their families and friends.
I don’t want to be like that; I don’t want my life to be forgotten. Standing there in that cemetery, I felt a strong, boiling desire to do something extraordinary with my life, to be remembered and inspiring for others.
In that moment, I was so aware of the brevity of life that I felt like running home and doing something, anything, that would survive my death and impact other people’s lives in a positive way. I thought about this blog as something that could possibly fulfill that purpose.
Death is inspiring that way. When we forget that we’re not guaranteed another day on this plane of existence (or believe that we’re guaranteed a more important eternity in an afterlife), each day becomes unimportant, just like every other.
But if we can set aside a little time every day to contemplate death, we won’t want to waste one moment of this precious, fleeting life.