One of the Stoic mantras is Memento Mori – translating roughly to remember that you could die at literally any second of every day so you better live life to the fullest!*
*ok I once again made that up
It’s a phrase I learned when reading up more on Stoicism and one that stuck with me, as has Amor Fati. I’ve written briefly about the former before, but I want to talk about how to make this seemingly morbid symbolic concept more accessible in 21st Century life.
The phrase itself sounds laden with heavy, philosophical schmance, but in reality, it’s just a very sobering, grounding reminder of how fleeting life really is. The Latin directly translates to: ‘Remember that you have to die.’ And yeah, alright, alright, it is a tad on the dramatic side. But let’s break it down.
The more we’re aware of the fact that we – and everyone around us – are mere mortals, the more we enjoy the present moment. Life becomes richer, even in the most mundane moments. Doing the food shop becomes an experience full of colour, walking round the block becomes a vast exploration, a conversation with another friend turns into a slice of magic in your day. You’re still here and have had all of these opportunities to keep living! Not only do you become more in touch with what’s around you but you also become so much more grateful. Once you remind yourself on the daily that the precious people in your life could disappear from the earth (yourself included) at literally any moment, the little trivial things in life dissolve and cease to matter.
While it’s quite a heavy thing to grapple with – ‘Hey, we’re all gonna die and it could be any moment right now!’ – I quite like to use the phrase ‘All Being Well’ after most of my thoughts/sentences to channel this particular philosophy with a softer spin:
I’m going to the pub in a few hours! All being well.
I’m seeing my family tomorrow! All being well.
I’m going to go for a long run this weekend. All being well.
I’ll book that restaurant for tonight. All being well.
I’ll jump on the tube tonight on the way to dinner. All being well.
You get the gist. Because all of those things could happen according to plan! But what if you end up having to stay late at work? What if (God forbid) there’s been an accident or a fire? What if you injure yourself? What if that restaurant’s closed for unforeseen circumstances? What if you get a flat tyre? Granted, most of those are unlikely, but that doesn’t mean they’re not possible.
Thinking this way might seem quite apocalyptic, right? Why would you automatically assume that things would go wrong? Why live in a negative mindset, why not be optimistic and assume the best? Aren’t we told to not live in fear?
While you have the best intentions living through an optimistic lens, life (read: reality) isn’t generally optimistic; it’s realistic and sometimes in the worst ways. And that’s what we constantly resist as fallible humans; we live mostly on autopilot forgetting the reality of what’s here right now because we’re so occupied by being mentally elsewhere, perhaps stuck in fantasies of the future, or ruminating on the past. This is where another Stoic framework comes in: negative visualisation.
Negative visualisation ties in quite nicely with Memento Mori. Ultimately, it’s subliminally expecting the worst possible outcome (though not as explicitly as it sounds) so that you are then prepared for the worst – anything else is simply a blessing, no matter how mundane. Not to be confused with living solely with a negative mindset, this is more of a precautionary reminder on the back burner in your brain; not something that lives at the front, driving your day-to-day experiences. It’s easy to view this philosophical modality as living without hope or in constant resistance, but this isn’t the case. There’s a very subtle difference between “Everything is shit, life’s unfair, so what is the point?” And “Life’s great right now, but I’m also prepared for that to change at any moment and I’m ok with that.”
It’s making peace with the inevitability of reality: at some point something awful may well happen, but if you’re prepared for it subconsciously (and somewhat consciously) then those blows won’t hit you as hard. And if you regularly meditate on your mortality, it will ultimately make your life more precious and you’ll appreciate those around you so much more deeply. If you think about it, we’re stupidly privileged to be living the lives we lead on this earth, and despite all the badness that inevitably happens, we must appreciate the good through not taking any moment for granted by reminding ourselves how limited our time here really is.
Just what you want to read about on a Friday morning, right?!