Written by: Michael Lucana
I am a single working parent with two daughters. Given this, I rely on my family to help with watching over my girls when I’m not able to. My mother watches them most of the time while I’m away; she feeds them, helps them with their homework, bathes them, puts them to bed, and sometimes has to answer difficult questions that they may have, questions that I wish I could be there to answer. A few nights ago my mother and I sat down for tea together after I arrived late from work. My daughters were already sound asleep. My mother told me the following:
Your oldest (she’s six years old) asked me today if I was old.
I said “Yes, I am old. Everyone gets old.”
And then she said to me, “Are you going to die someday? Are you going to turn into a ghost?”
I just said to her, “Yes I am going to die one day. But no, I don’t think I’m going to turn into a ghost. Maybe an angel. If I turn into an angel, I’ll be your angel. Ok?”
And do you know what she started to do? She started to cry. So I asked her, why are you crying? Hmm? Why are you so sad?
She was still crying, but started hugging me and she said, “Grandma I don’t want you to die!”
I said, “Oh but everyone dies. Don’t cry! Look at me, am I crying? No right?”
She shook her head and she said to me, “No, you’re not crying.”
“And why am I not crying? Because you cannot change that. Everyone has to die.” She got quiet then and finally started closing her eyes. Then she fell asleep.
Now my mother isn’t a philosopher by trade , at least as far as I know, but there was something very Stoic about the way she was able to speak plainly about her own inevitable death that I admired. Death is a difficult thing for people to talk about, even more difficult when the subject is one’s own death. But try as we might, none of us will be able to outrun death, and neither will anyone else that is close to us. So why do we avoid talking about it? Why do we run from it in our daily thoughts? After all, even if we refuse to think of it as something that will happen to us or our loved ones it’s not as if we have the power to stop it from eventually happening right?
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus recognized this tendency of ours to avoid thinking about death when he said the following:
You are a fool to want your children, wife or friends to be immortal; it calls for powers beyond you, and gifts not yours to either own or give. (Enchiridion 14.1)
Now I am a mortal, a human being. And as a human being I must accept the reality of the situation which is that I neither have the power to live forever or to grant immortal life to anyone. I would most definitely be living in a fantasy if I thought my wishing otherwise would have any effect on this state of affairs. I think, it would be equally as foolish to attempt to evade any thinking about death. But this is exactly what I do most of the time without even noticing, and it definitely doesn’t do me any good.
There are definitely practical reasons for thinking on the inevitability of death. I have children, so I have to ensure that my finances are in order at least enough so that if something unexpected happens to me, they are taken care of. I have to plan for my later years too, ensure that I have an end of life plan so that I am not a burden on others.
Those are the practical aspects, and they are definitely important, but what about what I gain from thinking on death? Something else must come of this acceptance of death as an eventuality, right? At the most basic level, I think at least, it is a sense of relief, a sense of not having to always be on the defensive when the idea of death makes itself known. No more wasted moments spent afraid, anxious, worried. I can get on with my day, my life, and do something worthwhile with my remaining time.
What do I recommend then? How to prepare for the eventuality of death? Talk about it, either with yourself or with another person. I am a fan of journaling so that is my favored method. But I have also held impromptu dialogues with individuals when the subject has come up, lest I neglect Epictetus’ advice in some subtle way.
But there should be a structure to this sort of dialogue if you choose to go through with it, a process by which one can accept the inevitable but also be able to turn this acceptance into an opportunity to flourish within the confines of mortality. The Memento Mori, I think, is suited to what we are trying to achieve. This Stoic exercise is found all throughout Stoic literature in various forms. It can be as simple as repeating to yourself the phrase, “You must die.” However, my favored version of this is written by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius:
The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all. And before long you’ll be no one, nowhere-like Hadrian, like Augustus.
The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy. (Meditations 8.5)
I like this version of the Memento Mori because it is still somewhat short, aims for conciseness, and is broken down into a two-step process.
In the first step of the exercise, you are reminded not to be anxious, that death is not something that is ultimately in the power of the human being, but under the control of nature. Because the eventuality of death is ultimately something that is not in your control, why should you feel anxious? It’s not in your hands, it isn’t something that you should spend any amount of your time fretting over.
Marcus also reminds himself that his predecessors, Hadrian and Augustus, men who he most likely admired, also died. By bringing up those you have acquaintance with that have passed away, you remind yourself yet again, in a visceral way, that death is a shared experience that we all must undergo. I think there are two insights that we can derive from this reminder.
The first insight: we can take comfort in knowing that the fears and anxieties we have concerning death are not ours alone, but something that all mortals must contend with. Even someone who you don’t get along with or actively dislike is afraid of dying or has felt the pain of losing someone close to them. If you find yourself resisting the urge to empathize with that person you dislike, know that this could only be happening because, in thinking about your shared anxieties about death, you have started to empathize with them.
The second insight: that time runs out for everyone, that what time I do have left is precious, is a gift that I should not waste. There were wise and great individuals that came before me, they were not able to avoid the eventuality of death, it caught up to them as well. This leads directly to the second step in Marcus’ meditation.
In the second step, you are reminded that there are things you have to do, that there are in fact things you are responsible for. Things that are worth your time that you have an opportunity to work on right now this instant. You are not responsible for stopping the eventuality of death, but you are responsible for being a good human. Go, do it, don’t hesitate, this is your time.
But what does being a good human consist of? The Stoics most definitely had very specific ideas about what it was to be a good human. To go in depth, I think, is best left for a later time. But for the time being, in the exercise as outlined by Marcus we are left with a few reminders.
The first reminder is to be kind. From the first insight that I explained above, remember in your dealings with people that, whether you like or dislike them, they are the same as you, with hopes, fears, losses they must also endure. The Stoics would say they are “fellow citizens of the world.” Focus on improving yourself, on doing with what needs to be done, but don’t step all over others when you do it.
The second reminder is to be humble. Remember, no matter where you are in life, how successful you may become, or think you have become, you are still a human being, subject to the same fortunes as everyone else. In fact, subject to the same eventual fate.
The third reminder is to be truthful, to avoid hypocrisy. You’ve already admitted a truth most people avoid even in their daily thoughts! “I will die. Everyone will die.” If you can be truthful about this, if you can look it directly in the face without flinching, and accept the relief that comes with it, why would you ever want to be a liar ever again? Why would you ever want to lie to yourself about the time you have with your loved one? Appreciate those moments, cherish them, don’t tell yourself that you will always be able to make it up in the future, because that has never been promised to any of us.
There are many other ways to conduct the Memento Mori. I have only explained the route I have taken in meditating on this subject. In my research I have found many creative and interesting ways that other people have interpreted this Stoic practice. I invite you to try it out, see in what ways it can help you.
I appreciate the conversation that my mother had with my daughter. It begins the process by which my daughter can begin to think about her mortality in a clear and practical manner. She will learn to appreciate the time she has and will also appreciate the time she has with her loved ones. It is the first but not last small step for her to become the best version of herself that she can be. I have some work to do as well, to keep that dialogue going, to ensure that she has the proper support and tools to help on her way. After that, the rest will be up to her.
A day later I’m sitting with my oldest having breakfast. She turns to me and says, “Daddy are you old?”
I squint and say, “Eh so so, I’m so so old.”
“Oh okay. Daddy, will you die when you get old?”
“Eh, yeah, but that’s normal.”
“Oh okay.” Then she finishes eating breakfast and goes to get ready for her day.