An idea for you to consider
I had just passed the immigration and customs checkpoints at New York City’s JFK airport, when I received a text message from a friend.
“Annette died last night”.
I froze in the arrivals hall.
I was on my first overseas business trip for a Swiss-based insurance technology startup back in September 2015. Things were going well and frankly speaking, I felt a bit invincible and thinking about death was definitely not something that occurred to me before.
That changed with the sad news I had received. Annette was 23 years old and supposed to start her Master’s degree in London. Unfortunately, she never had the chance to do so. She passed away unexpectedly the week before her studies would have started.
To be honest, at first I found it difficult to make sense of this tragedy. It was only a few months later that I learned about the idea of Memento Mori. This Stoic idea helped me to take a new perspective on my friend's death (and my own mortality) and I would like to share this idea with you today.
The origins of Memento Mori
Memento Mori is a Latin saying meaning “remember you must die”.
The phrase has its origins in Ancient Rome. The greatest honour a Roman general could receive, was a triumph through Rome after returning from the battlefield. The general would be led on a chariot through adoring cheering crowds. However, there was also a servant closely following him while repeatedly whispering “Memento Mori” to ensure the general was not being entirely consumed by excessive pride and self-confidence. The servant's constant whispering of "Memento Mori" during the triumph was meant to remind the general that his glory was only temporary and that he was mortal like everyone else.
Throughout history, Memento Mori has been interpreted differently depending on the school of thought. In the Catholic Church, the saying was used with moralising intent ("say no to earthly pleasures and focus on the afterlife"). The Stoics, on the other hand, used it as a practice of reflection on mortality.
I suggest that we adopt the Stoic view to learn how Memento Mori can be a useful tool in our own lives.
How to use Memento Mori as a tool
I know that thinking about death is maybe something that does not come naturally to you or might even creep you out (I’ve been there). However, occasionally meditating on death can be an incredibly powerful tool in our lives to increase clarity and root ourselves in the present.
We’ve learnt now that the only certain thing is the death of our body. The time of death, however, is uncertain and beyond our control.
Important: The point is not to make you feel anxious about death. In case you’re feeling anxious and find yourself wondering how few days you may have left, pause and take a deep breath. The idea of Memento Mori is the opposite. It’s to root yourself in the present moment. To inspire you. To approach every single day with a mindset of gratitude. To empower you.
Instead of avoiding the thought of death, I’d like to invite you to embrace the temporariness and fragility of our existence. Understanding the inevitability of death can fill us with a sense of urgency to focus on what really matters to us and to intensify our experience of life.
A great read for you
I stumbled upon this article about the two eccentric tech-entrepreneurs, Daniil and David Liberman, in the New Yorker.
They are selling shares in themselves and think that this model could be a pioneer to reduce inequality.
I came across this idea for the first time in 2011 thanks to Lars Stein. Lars sold part of his future income to private investors in order to overcome the financial barrier to studying at university.
The Libermans took the idea of Lars one step further by creating the Libermans Co., which will hold all income from their enterprises; any debts, assets, profits incl. any companies they might start or investments they might make for the next thirty years.
Honestly, I have no clue whether this is a brilliant idea to reduce inequality in this world, or whether it is simply brilliant storytelling to raise plenty of funds for whatever they want to do.
Time will tell, I guess.
A quote for you to ponder
“Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being, but by integration of the contraries.” ― Carl Gustav Jung
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