Momento Mori

There is an old phrase that goes back to Socrates that I find extremely impactful: Momento Mori. For millennia, we as humans have cultivated the practice of Momento Mori — reflecting on death. Early Buddhist texts make reference to how we should remember death; Socrates said that the proper practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead”. For most people, this thought that we should reflect on our death is very dystopian and depressing. The reason for this is because our culture sees death as the ultimate end — after death, there is nothing. This is true, but more recently we have started to avoid thinking about death. Being scared of death is natural — we have instincts to help us avoid death — but nevertheless it is important to reflect on the fact that we will die some day.

Rather than thinking of death as something to be scared of, what if instead we thought about it as something to embrace? Reflecting on death allows us to carefully contemplate whether or not we are living our best lives. When we understand that death can happen at any moment, we can become more empowered to make positive change in our life. Consider this: if yesterday was your last day, would you be proud of how you lived? Notice this question is not asking about what you would do on your last day, but rather if you would have been proud of your actions yesterday if you did not live another day. By asking yourself this question, you are able to reflect on whether or not you acted in accordance with your values, and you can start to gain a firmer sense of how you can change your life.

As a Stoic, I am trying to remind myself more of the phrase Momento Mori. Reflecting on death helps us realize that we are temporary — that we will be forgotten. Marcus Aurelius frequently thought of the names of past emperors, because it made him think about how many of them had been forgotten by society. The truth is that life is temporary, but that is nothing to worry about. Thinking about this gives us a great reason to start improving our lives today — if we could die tomorrow, then we should do our best to live our life to the fullest today. Let’s say that yesterday you got angry because someone emailed you about something important but non-urgent after you had left the office, which could have been sent in the morning. It is likely that upon further reflection you would realize that anger was not the best emotion; perhaps ignoring the task until the morning would be better so you could stop thinking about it. On your last day you would not want to be angry at other people. Momento Mori gives us a greater sense of perspective, and helps us analyze how we can live a better life.

This phrase has another impact as well. In today’s always-on culture, it can be very easy to allow work to become part of almost everything we do in the day. We check our emails while eating our breakfast; we read reports before we go to sleep; we respond to Slack messages after dinner — not to mention the work we actually do in the office. When I reflect on death, I realize that for the most part, I do not need to be working when I am eating or before I go to sleep. If life is temporary and we will all be forgotten at some point, then what is the point in spending my limited time doing work that could wait? Momento Mori helps me stay focused on working when I should be, and gives me a guideline as to when I should stop working. Reflecting on this point also helps me realize that I should not be all about business — there is more to life than work. If I had worked for twelve hours yesterday, spent no time with family, and realized it had been my last day, I would not be proud. However, if I got some great work done, then spent the rest of the day reading, listening to music, and spending time with friends and family, I would likely feel more proud. In sum, Momento Mori helps us realize that some things can wait, and gain a better perspective of our limited time.

I am now trying to meditate daily on the fact that I will die at some point — Momento Mori — and I use that time to think about how I can better utilize the time I have left. Stoics often remark on the fact that regret can be worse than death, because you could have made another decision. I do not want to look back in five years and regret how I spent my time; I want to look back and say that I have used my time efficiently and was very happy. I don’t want to waste a second in my life because every second matters. Initially, I found reflecting on death quite depressing, but after thinking about it I realized that it is nothing to worry about — it is actually a tool to help us create meaning in our life. Because life is limited, then we are more pressured to do more in the short amount of time we have. Reminding ourselves of death can help us make the changes that we need to make to life our best life, and be the best version of our self.

Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, his personal journal, that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” He reminded himself daily that if death could happen at any moment, then it was worth his time to be virtuous in every moment. He did not want to wait, or spend all of his time working, because he understood there was more to life. The concept of Momento Mori also reminds me of another Stoic concept — how we react to outside events. As I have written, the only thing over which we have true control is our mind and therefore our reactions — our health, employment prospects, are all out of our control for the most part. Reflecting on death is no different. We can think that everything is okay and that we have plenty more time, or we can accept the fact that we are mortal and therefore we should spend every moment working toward becoming our best self. It can be difficult to internalize to start with — nobody wants to admit they are going to die — but reminding yourself of Momento Mori each day ensures that we never forget to live a good life.

Let’s not focus on the fact that death is bad, but use it as a motivator to become a better person. Let us use Momento Mori to help us choose between doing the right thing and the wrong thing, and as a guide to help us understand where we can improve our lives.

Life is limited. Don’t be all about business. Momento Mori.