It's never too early to start thinking about your own death. Remember that you're going to die. We are all going to die. You. Me. All of us. Sooner or later, we are all inevitably going to meet the Grim Reaper. This fundamental truth of the human experience seems to be forgotten or neglected on a daily basis by most people. In a society charmed by the myth of eternal youth and obsessed with the idea of indefinitely prolonging life, talking about death is generally viewed as kinda creepy — it's not the most popular conversation starter at a cocktail party.
Maybe I'm just on the verge of some sort of clichéd mid-life crisis (I'm turning 40 in a few months), but I've found a deep resonance with this eloquently-titled post
It's never too early to start thinking about your own death, written by Los Angeles-based mortician and death theorist Caitlin Doughty.
The author writes:
I see death as a good thing. Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create. (…) The great achievements of humanity were born out of the deadlines imposed by death.
Now, that's an uplifting and life-affirming reframing of the topic: the awareness that the clock is relentlessly ticking can paradoxically be the very source of our creativity. Instead of the quixotic techno-utopian efforts to outsmart the gods, by attempting to overcome death altogether, I believe that any reflection on death can be fruitfully refocused on the issue of how we consciously decide to spend our time.
We are living in frenzied times – so much do to do, so many things to see. However, the overwhelming excess of options and possibilities carries with it an unprecedented risk for distractions. In spite of all our gizmo chasing, our app hopping, our compulsive tweeting and binge web-surfing, time slips away faster than ever. A Sisyphean sense of futility persists despite all this rushing about — how then to know when you are spending your time well, and in a meaningful and worthwhile way?
How am I spending my time?
More than a hundred years before Bill Murray's endlessly looped day in the cult movie Groundhog Day, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proposed a thought experiment:
What if a demon crept after you one day or night in your loneliest solitude and said to you: "This life, as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live again and again, times without number; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and all the unspeakably small and great in your life must return to you, and everything in the same series and sequence—and in the same way this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and in the same way this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence will be turned again and again—and you with it, you dust of dust!" (…) The question in all and everything: "do you want this again and again, times without number?" would lie as the heaviest burden upon all your actions. Or how well disposed towards yourself and towards life would you have to become to have no greater desire than for this ultimate eternal sanction and seal? [The Gay Science, 1882]
Are the things I'm doing today worthy of being done again and again, times without number? I find this thought experiment a compelling way to gauge my actions. It intensifies the weight of the present moment and counteracts my default tendency to procrastinate, to think that I'll always have plenty of time on my hands. Re-examining my priorities against the passage of time can be an eye-opening, if at times terrifying, exercise.
A Memento Mori made of playing cards
The idea of time's passing can seem quite abstract. Therefore, it can be helpful to keep handy a Memento Mori, an object meant to serve as a symbolic reminder of our own mortality and the inexorable passing of time. Memento Mori's have traditionally taken the form of a skull, an hourglass, or other symbols of transformation, and designing one's own, personal Memento Mori can be a fun and creative exercise.
Primed by Kevin Kelly's countdown clock, I was finally prompted to take action after reading DIY Magic by Anthony Alvarado, a whimsical collection of reality hacks. One of his meditations is specifically devoted to creating a personalized Memento Mori, to achieve "a fuller appreciation of life, gained by cultivating an awareness of death."
(…) There is a long, rich history of people who thought it very important to remind themselves and others, once in a while, that we humans don't get to live forever. Granted, a lot of them were monks and philosophers, who tend to be a gloomy bunch. But awareness of one's own mortality does not have to be morbid. I believe that it can be inspiring, uplifting, and help remind you of your focus and purpose.
Being a magician, I decided to tackle the experiment using a tool of my trade: a pack of playing cards. Conveniently enough, a pack of cards has a peculiar embedded property, lurking beneath its surface: it functions as a sort of calendar. A deck of cards is made up of four suits – hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds – representing the four seasons. The 13 cards in each suit represent the 13 phases of the lunar cycle. There are 52 cards in a deck – just as there are 52 weeks in a year. Finally, adding up all the numbers in each and every card the result is 365 – the number of days in a year. So, one pack of cards can be a fair visual representation of a solar year. Pretty uncanny, eh?
In the center of my Wunderkammer there's a structural, steel I-beam – a kind of axis mundi if you will – connecting the ground floor to the upper floor. The flanges on either side of the beam are perfectly spaced to fit a pack of cards. It seemed an auspicious match for my quirky installation. I took 39 used packs of cards – one pack for each year I've already "played out" – and stacked them on one side of the beam. On the other side of the beam, I stacked another set of new decks, equal to the number of years I expect to live (according to the average male life expectancy for Italy). Seen as a whole, the result is a kind of "lifetime hourglass" made of playing cards.
This has become my Memento Mori meditation: every week, I shift a single card from one pile to the other: one more card has been played, one more week moved from the future into the past. This ongoing weekly meditation provides a visual representation of how many cards are left for me to play, it helps me recenter my priorities, urging me to play my cards well.
How we spend our days is how we spend our lives
The most common complaint of our fast-paced hyper-connected society is the feeling of "not having enough time". Many people feel hopelessly robbed of their time by their jobs, seeming to have traded meaning for money. In the long run, a perpetual state of rushing about can create a desperate sense of estrangement and anxiety that no amount of compulsive busyness, bustling, or buying stuff can ever fill.
Thinking about death and the transience of time – and playfully building one's own Memento Mori – entails addressing the crucial question: What do you want to do with your life? Pondering such a big existential question, I always find solace in the timeless words of wisdom by Alan Watts, who reframed the question thusly: What do I desire?