Part Four - Memento Mori

5 minutes reading time

Memento Mori

While we can take actions to minimise the risks of contracting diseases like COVID-19, we cannot eliminate it completely. We can be prepared in case this does happen to ourselves, a member of our household or our family, friends or neighbours. While many will suffer for a while, they will recover—however, some may not.

It is a sad fact that we are more likely to lose someone close to us sooner than we might otherwise. Facing your own mortality, and that of those around you should not be considered morbid and misses the point. Memento mori means “remember you must die” in Latin. No-one escapes death. It is a healthy and natural thing that everyone will experience sooner or later. Epictetus would tell his students to say to themselves: “I knew that I was mortal”. He said:

It is not things that disturb men but their judgements about them. For example, death is nothing catastrophic or else Socrates too would have thought so. Rather the judgement that death is catastrophic, this is the catastrophic thing.

It is a way of thinking to create priority and meaning in your life. To treat the time you have as a gift, and not waste it on trivial things or spent on unhelpful emotions. Tim Urban on his blog Wait, but Why has a great post visualising your life as a series of weeks. Seeing them laid out as a grid, and then realising where you are, lays bare the simple reality that time is precious, and we should think about how to use our time wisely.

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it. — Seneca

Live each day as if it’s your last

This common phrase from the positive thinking brigade is lousy advice. It is more confusing than helpful. The problem is that we don’t actually know when our time will be up. If we knew for sure, then we would change our actions massively. We would probably act more selfishly or spend our money extravagantly, and so on. Since we don’t know, then we cannot afford to live without an eye toward the future. But then, how can we handle it better? Once again, it’s a matter of perception.

An attitude of gratitude

Firstly, we can be grateful for the time we get to spend with the people we care about. This attitude of gratitude is helpful and beneficial anyway. Prioritise spending quality time with them. With social distancing measures in place, we can’t necessarily do this physically. However, we are lucky that we have many technological solutions available to connect with each other from a distance.

Use your time wisely

Secondly, the goal of Stoics is to live a good life. What does this actually mean? One way to look at it is as if you had died, been resuscitated and granted one more day. Choose to live that day in the best way you know how; making the most of the day as you can. If you do so, you can be content and go to sleep soundly in the knowledge that you did your best. If you get to wake up again the next day, you are grateful for another chance.

Live as if you died, but were resuscitated and every minute was a gift.

Marcus Aurelius reflected on this theme throughout Meditations. He would remind himself to live in the present moment as if certain death were looming on the horizon and contemplate on the notion that “you could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

When you arise in the morning, tell yourself, “you may never sleep again”. And when you go to bed, “you may not wake again”. Train yourself to be grateful for the day ahead, and be content at the end of the day that you tried to carry out all your actions in the day with a sense of purpose with an eye toward virtue.

Premeditatio Malorum

Thirdly, another ancient Stoic practice, which is also used now in more modern CBT therapy, is the idea of negative visualisation. Or, as the Stoics would have called it, premeditatio malorum; expect to have a pleasant day, but be prepared for the trials and tribulations which might lie ahead. There are two aspects to this, first is planning ahead and thinking about what may go wrong and have some plans in mind to deal with them should they occur. The second takes this a step further where you visualise and feel discomfort, fear or anxiety and sit with it for a while to become more comfortable with it.

Now it should be noted that I am in no way any kind of medical expert, as I understand matters, you certainly should not try to go deep in this straight out of the gate. You must start small with only things that cause mild anxiousness and work your way in slowly, otherwise you may do more damage to yourself. With the current situation, you may already have heightened feelings of stress and anxiety. This practice is the art of sitting with those feelings until they abate naturally; they show you that you can overcome them and remain calm. Telling yourself that “this too shall pass”. As you become more accustomed and more able to sit with fears, you can visualise and imagine perhaps that you have contracted coronavirus. Try to really feel the pain. If you are in any doubt, I suggest you do not try this without the assistance of someone qualified.

As Seneca wrote:

Fortune…falls heavily on those to whom she is unexpected; the person who is always expecting her easily withstands her. For an enemy’s arrival too scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict, being properly drawn up and equipped, easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent. Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.

If you have found the ideas in this article useful or helpful, then please share it with your friends and family so they too can see if they would find it beneficial in their own lives.

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