“Memento mori” is a Latin phrase that means “Remember death.” In a Roman triumph, the general victorious in some war rode in a chariot with a slave who constantly whispered in his ear, “Remember that you are mortal.” The Roman Stoics embraced this same idea. Epictetus, for example, once said, “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” Marcus Aurelius wrote in his journal, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
In other words, reflecting on your own death should be liberating. You should be motivated to work toward your goals before you die as death could come at any time—say, in a car wreck or because of a massive heart attack. If you would live a fulfilled life, work toward fulfillment this very day. Don’t put off till tomorrow what you should do today.
And reflecting on death should help you keep those New Year’s resolutions. If you want to lose weight or be more organized or become a less angry person, remember your death. You have limited time to fulfill your resolutions.
But, is there a practical way to remind yourself that you’re mortal? Yes! Modern Stoics have come up with the idea of a memento mori calendar, on which you mark off each week of your life while viewing future calendar weeks that run to age 80 or 89 or whatever. You’re supposed to ask yourself whether you made progress toward your life goals in the week you’ve marked off. If not, you’re supposed to look at your estimated date of death, but remember that you may only have a few weeks (or days) left to change yourself or accomplish something.
I’ve purchased my own memento mori calendar. Starting January 1st, I can easily look back at each week and ask myself whether I’ve written a blog article or progressed in my study of Ancient Greek or lost a couple of pounds of weight. I can ask myself whether I’ve become a more peaceful and compassionate person. I can ask myself whether I’ve become a better Quaker.
Friend, if you too would like to become a better Quaker, perhaps you should consider keeping a memento mori calendar.
~ Richard Russell
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