Today’s lesson in stoicism comes, again, from the ancient Romans who put for the the idea of Momento Mori: “Remember you must die.” The Romans had a tendency to elevate their generals to Ceasars whom were considered to be gods. One conquering general was not comfortable with this idea, despite being treated as and considered a god everywhere he went. This general assigned a slave to walk behind him the many parades being held in the general’s honor and repeat the phrase, “Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!” (“Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die!”) The lesson here is not at all morbid, but simple: thinking about death allows on to better appreciate being alive, and thus inspiring one to truly live. Marcus Aurelius said, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” And that quote I told you I was looking for yesterday from Hagakure? Found it:
“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a giant earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.” ~ Yamamoto Tsunetomo
If one is actually prepared for death at any moment in every day, then how upsetting can anything that isn’t death possibly be?
I deal with a lot of survivor’s guilt, which is a very irrational thing. One angle I take when the thoughts turn to “I should have died…it should have been me,” is that maybe I did. Maybe I did die, and am really already technically dead, but the paperwork hasn’t yet made it through the supernatural bureaucracy, so in the meantime, I’m just kind of kicking around like Lazarus. Bonus time. That makes me appreciate things a bit more, and it takes some of the pressure off.
There is a Nietzsche quote about suicide that kind of taps at the essence of this whole line of thinking: “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” What he’s saying is that when things are truly bad, and one is feeling trapped, it can be helpful to remind one’s self that no matter how bad things are, even if it seems like there is no escape from a situation or no solution to a problem, one can always choose to “check out.” That thought has given me and a great many other non-suicidal people a bit of existential breathing room that has made all the difference when dealing with things that seem impossible. Memento Mori is not at all about suicide, but I think the root notion of these two ideas is similar: when one is truly and actually prepared to die at any moment, priorities shift dramatically, and the most insurmountable and dire things suddenly because almost trivial, and in some cases, even amusing.
Stoicism is ultimately about controlling one’s emotions, and thus not giving ephemeral and irrational emotions any power over one’s self. A key part of this is deemphasizing the importance of events that might otherwise completely derail a person’s life. Memento Mori does this quite effectively.
N.P.: “Leave Me Alone – Remix” – Jerry Cantrell