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On Facing Mortality

A year ago this past December, the quarterback of my high school football team died. He was 65. Gillain-Barre had paralyzed him and he developed blood clots that ultimately killed him by causing a stroke. I had just spoken to him over the phone a month before. He was excited and planning to do another guided tour of Italy, something he had started doing as a High School teacher in New York. I hope he was planning the details of the trip in his mind when his time came. Those tours made him the happiest he’d ever been. He had no wife or children. There wasn’t even a service for him. It makes me sad just to write this.

I’ve been studying Stoicism lately, mainly through the incredible efforts of Ryan Holiday who has brought the 2,000+ years-old philosophy to life via wonderful books and podcasts. Ryan shares a key Stoic saying: “Memento Mori,” Remember, you will die. As someone who retired this year and strives every day to create something, Memento Mori is a concept I remember very well.

When you’re young time is not something you appreciate. Indeed, it is something you dread because it never seems to pass quickly enough. You understand the meaning of “a month of Sundays” clearly. In fact, you almost resent time, for it often stands in the way of getting there. Where? The next thing. The next place. The next person. When you’re young, you never recognize that time is your most important organ, as important as your heart, and brain. It is irreplaceable but you don’t sense it. Young people always say they can “make up time” doing this thing or that. They can’t make up time.

The concept of Memento Mori, at first glance, seems morbid. Sure, we all know that we will die someday, what’s the big deal? The big deal is on a day-to-day basis, none of us act that way, but perhaps we should. Not that we should all be in terror of our demise, but cognizant that it’s there more acutely, and have that knowledge guide our choices a little more. It should be a reminder that no day should be wasted. That is not to say we shouldn’t have leisurely days by the pool or in the park. Quite the contrary, those are often wise choices of action to help us relax. The point is, that even resting and relaxing is a positive, purposeful choice. The lesson of Memento Mori is to live life on purpose.

There is another Stoic saying that helps us live in alignment with Memento Mori and that is, Amor Fati – Literally, the love of your fate: The welcoming of all life’s experiences as good, according to Merriam-Webster, and Ryan Holiday agrees, but expands the definition. On his dailystoic.com website, Ryan states, “We can choose Amor Fati, to love our fate by first taking control over our perceptions, and then by turning our new paradigm into action.” In essence, this explains the fundamental Stoic principle that we can’t control what happens, to us or anyone else. But we can accept it, even embrace it, and turn it into action. That is empowerment in a nutshell.

I always thought that I would be afraid of dying as I got closer to it (via aging). I’m not. I believe in some kind of existence of my conscious self after my body fails in this dimension. I believe we move to a different dimension. Of course, I have no idea of the details after that. That is the broad thought though. So no, I’m not afraid of dying. What frightens me tremendously though, is the thought of living the rest of my days without purpose. That’s why I love the morning so much. It brings with it new hope of creation and experience, and for that, I am most grateful. It brings another day, another opportunity to create and live life on purpose.