Remember: You Are Going to Die

It sucks, but here’s a question that might help

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

I’m turning twenty-nine soon, and at the rate these days have been passing, I feel like I’ll blink twice and be thirty.

I know, I know, thirty isn’t old. Statistically, I should have another forty or fifty years after that. Maybe more, if I have a bit of luck.

Thirty isn’t old, but it is a boundary of sorts. The previous milestones of turning eighteen, twenty, twenty-one, were all beginnings. The beginning of adulthood, or the beginning of a new privilege and responsibility. Thirty feels less like a beginning and more like the changing of leaves.

It’s a new age bracket, a new label that I’ll have to slap on over the “twenty-something” I’ve sported for almost ten years. It will be the end of my first proper decade as an adult. I won’t be named on a “30 under 30” list, which is a real shame since I was so close to becoming a wildly successful media luminary.

Jokes aside, I won’t be old, but I won’t quite be young, anymore, either.

Photo by Kyrie kim on Unsplash

I’ve been having feelings of panicked dread as I approach this milestone, and they get stronger every time I realize that another month has gone by. It doesn’t feel like it’s been a month, how did that happen?

These feelings come and go. I’m not in a constant state of existential crisis, but I am frequently staggered by the realization that my life will end. Maybe soon, but hopefully not so soon.

Coincidentally, one of my coworkers started a “Great Thinkers” book club early this year, and the first book on the list was Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Marcus Aurelius wrote about death constantly. His own death, the deaths of his family and mentors, the death of the rhetorical “you” that he often used in the journal entries that eventually became Meditations.

This is typical for the Stoics, the school of philosophy that Aurelius belonged to. They all thought about death so much that they coined a phrase as a reminder: “memento mori”, which translates to “remember, you must die”. Even among modern-day stoics, this phrase lives on because it is powerful.

“memento mori”, which translates to “remember, you must die”.

With my pre-existing existential friction, it was really difficult for me to entertain these thoughts. How could I die, when I am so alive? When I have so much left to do?

Photo by Justin DoCanto on Unsplash

The truth is that each of us can die at any moment. Aurelius revisits this idea approximately eight million times, often without any proper segue into the topic (we cannot really fault him for this; they were his personal journals, after all).

It was all very bleak, made more so by my own bleak mindset as I prepared to face the end of a chapter in my life.

Yet, hidden among the constant reminders of mortality were snippets of hope. There were small glimpses of… wow, is that meaning? Aurelius reminds us that, despite our brevity, we do have purpose.

Our purpose arises in what we do with our limited time. It arises in how we treat others, and in the choices that we make each day. We are all part of the whole that is our world, our society, our community.

Nature, he says, has a way it does things. Our purpose is to fulfill our natures, and do what we were made to do. Dying is, of course, part of this natural progression, but so is creating. So is loving, and savoring, and resting.

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One of my favorite quotes from Meditations speaks to a familiar, conflict:

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

This quote comes to me as I wake early in the morning, groggy and wishing I didn’t have to get up for my daily stand-up meeting. The quote also comes to me in the evenings, when I feel sluggish from a day of effort, and can’t convince myself to put in some work on the game I’m developing.

It is a gentle quote, but a firm one. It asks an honest question and demands an honest answer.

Is this what I am meant to do right now?

Sometimes, all I have to do is ask the question to realize I am stalling, or procrastinating, and I need to correct my course. Other times, the honest answer is that I am meant to rest, and that’s okay, too.

It is a hopeful question, reminding me that I have a purpose. Right now, I have the opportunity to do something, to create something, and leave this world changed by my presence. I just have to do it.

It is also a pragmatic question, and accepting of our human limitations. It would be unnatural to do something we lack the resources to do, and we don’t go against nature.

Beneath the question, there’s the stoic undercurrent of “memento mori”. It’s the “why” of the question. Is this what I am meant to do right now? Because I will die whether I finish my work or not.

Photo by Noémi Macavei-Katócz on Unsplash

Accepting human limitation is important, because it takes some of the pressure off. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor, and surely had important projects that he was a part of, but these didn’t make it into his journals. He was more worried about the little things, the daily things.

He wanted to be kind to others, to avoid giving in to anger, and to gently educate people when they made mistakes. These are just moments, but so is the moment you wake up grumpy and consider giving in to a warm, fluffy bed. Moments are all we have, one after the other, like knit stitches that eventually build up to a sweater.

I did not read Meditations in a timely manner, and therefore missed out on the book club discussions, but when I did eventually read Meditations it affected me in a way that could be described as life-changing, if I wanted to be dramatic.

The concept of human mortality is usually expressed as a collection of cliches:

  • “live like you’re dying”
  • “what would you do if you knew you would die tomorrow?”
  • “how do you want people to remember you?”

Maybe it was the repetition, or maybe it was the fact that this man was writing about life and death over two thousand years ago, but something about Meditations made these ideas real for me, and gave them gravity.

Aurelius has been dead for centuries. At some point, I will have been dead for centuries. You will, too. Unless you’re reading this in the far future, in some archives of the 2020s, and you’ve invented a way to live forever. In that case, what are you doing here? Don’t you think this topic is kind of irrelevant for you?

For all of us mortals, though, ask the question. Are you doing what you’re meant to do? If not, how can you get there?

Death comes for us all in the end, but we can create meaning in the time that we have.

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A software engineer and artist interested in self-development, creativity and becoming a better version of me.

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Alyssa Blackwell

Alyssa Blackwell

A software engineer and artist interested in self-development, creativity and becoming a better version of me.

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