Stoicism is one of my favorite guiding philosophies for life, and especially for my career in working with the public. In the stoic philosophy, there is a phrase that often comes up in the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and the other big names: Memento Mori.
Roughly translated, it means “remember that you will die”.
When I was talking with someone about this concept recently, I was reminded of the scene in What About Bob? where Bob (Bill Murray) and the family’s son are sharing a room. As they are about to go to sleep, the son starts saying over and over: “I am going to die, you are going to die, we all are going to die” (it’s a comedy, I swear. Check out the clip here). This leaves Bill Murray’s character completely horrified and unable to sleep. And then hilarity ensues.
The stoics, for their part, were known to tell themselves every night that they may not wake up in the morning, and to tell themselves every morning that this may be their last day alive.
What the stoics were trying to convey was not that we should be worried about our legacy, or how short of a time we may have on this earth. Rather, they wanted to show how important it is to recognize that nothing is permanent. Anything can be taken away from us at a moment’s notice.
In my job as a physical therapist, I’ve had the joy of working with many patients throughout all different phases of life. Some very young, some very old. Many times the older patients would pass away from their disease or just from the natural aging process. Sometimes it happened while they were patients (luckily not while they were working with me), other times they died many months later and we’d learn about their passing in the obituary.
Today is Monday. Two days ago, on Saturday, a former patient texted me asking if I could come by and show her how to use her new stairlift and practice some transfers. We arranged to meet today.
When I arrived, I walked in and was met by a home nurse who informed me that last night the patient had slipped into unconsciousness and was not expected to recover.
On Saturday she was planning how to improve her function at home , and by Monday she was no longer able to communicate.
Perhaps these individual situations will make us sad, and it’s ok to grieve, certainly. But the fact that up until her last moments she was looking for ways to continue to progress and thrive as best she could, should give us all comfort.
If you want to do something, do it. If you have wronged someone and never apologized, do it. Live by your guiding principles, help others, keep yourself healthy, and enjoy your time on Earth. Tomorrow isn’t promised.