By Ethan Maurice | February 27, 2018
As someone who writes about full, vibrant living, you'd be surprised by how often I think about death. A decade ago, a mosquito bite nearly killed me, and since, the thought of death has yet to escape my head.
At first, this dark thought was maintained by the shock of how close I had ventured to life's edge. However, I began stumbling upon benefits of having the thought of death in mind. Benefits in big ways: realizing the future was more of a question mark than a guarantee, I placed more value in the present. And smaller ways: death's consideration made public speaking less intimidating. After nearly a decade of toying with the thought of death and its various surprising effects, it recently dawned on me: remembering that you are going to die is the ultimate catalyst for a better life.
Today, I remind myself daily that sooner or later my life will end.
In a society uncomfortable with death, the majority of us remain utterly naive to the fact that there are positives to our mortality. Consider, though, whether or not we think about death, we are going to die. You and I will inevitably receive the ultimate negative of death. However, we can choose whether or not to accept the positives that come with that negative. Yet today, most of us go about life suppressing the thought of death, inadvertently burying death's gifts.
Yes, what I'm saying is this: there are major benefits to our mortality, and most of us have lost touch with them.
I hope I've got you curious...
Here are the 10 main reasons I remind myself that I am going to die:
1. Death pushes us to act. When death will find us, we do not know. This pushes us to act upon what is most important in the present, the only moment we know we have, as the future is an unknowable question mark.
2. Death gives time value. In economics class, I learned value was set by supply and demand. Without death, time would be in endless supply and despite utmost demand, would have no value. Death limits our supply of time, inverting its value from worthless to priceless.
3. Death provides contrast. Thanks to darkness, we can grasp the notion of light. In the same way, death provides contrast to life; as you read these words, at the bare minimum, you are alive! This is one thing we can always be thankful for, one thing to keep us going regardless of our lot in life.
4. Death kills ego. As death implies the end of the ego, it has a way of suppressing the desires of the ego in the present. This makes room for wants of the soul: things like love, curiosity, and wonder.
5. Death exposes false importance. False importance, from fame to fancy things to revenge, dissolves in the face of death.
6. Death is a permission slip. One hundred years from now, essentially everyone alive at this moment will be gone and forgotten. All expectations will perish much sooner—not a single one has ever outlasted the person who held it.
7. Death lessens fear. Fear can be belittled by death. From public speaking to social anxiety to a leap of faith, when held near the thought of death, all fears are minimized.
8. Death makes anything sweeter. Like a movie you can only watch once, every experience is heightened by the limitations placed upon it. With only so many goes at anything, we cherish each of them.
9. Death reminds us to breathe (and laugh). Time will wash us and all we do away, which helps us take life less seriously and find humor in even our most vital struggles.
10. Death maintains mystery in life. We view the world more objectively than any generation to proceed us, which results in a lack of mystery and wonder in our lives. No matter how much faith we put in our four-dimension bound, five senses processed through our subconscious driven psyche to objectively interpret reality, death remains beyond the grasp of those senses, preserving a profound sense of mystery in life.
To summarize: at the expense of quantity, death increases our quality of life.
However, in burying the thought of death and thinking as if we'll live forever, we bury death's extraordinary benefits. To reflect upon our mortality is to refresh the positives of life's greatest negative. We don't even have to remember how or why death improves our quality of life, death's contemplation just does, applying itself to whatever is on our minds.
There's a Latin phrase, “memento mori,” which translates in English to “remember death” that has been associated with the practice of contemplating one's mortality for thousands of years. Visiting my sister's college in Maine this fall, I had the extraordinary luck of timing a temporary memento mori art exhibit entitled, The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe. I wandered around for a long while, considering the varying uses of remembering death across the ages while inspecting these mortality reminding art pieces.
While examining these reminders of death, it struck me that I was the current living, breathing version of those who used objects as reminders to reflect upon their mortality, as I coincidentally carried a coin imprinted with “memento mori” in my pocket for the exact same reason. As I type these very words, I can feel its circular outline pressing lightly against my thigh, a reminder of life's limits, and in this instance, a spur past the fear of publicly sharing such different, fundamental thoughts in a culture that suppresses them.
As far back as we can look, people have actively practiced this remembrance of death. From the Day of the Dead, to Buddhist meditations on impermanence, to 16th and 17th century Christian art, to the Stoic fixation on death's consideration—our preserved history is rife with evidence of our ancestor's contemplation of death for the purpose of living a better life.
Death is the most powerful reminder I have ever encountered to live. It pushes us to act, lends sound perspective, diminishes fear, allows us to be true to ourselves, focuses us on the present... I could go on, but I think you get the point:
Remembering that you are going to die is the ultimate catalyst for a better life.
*I recently bought a bunch of "memento mori" coins in bulk to carry around with me. Not unlike Johnny Appleseed, I hope to plant one in the pocket of anyone who resonates with the practice of remembering that life could end at any time. If you're interested, enter your info here and I'll personally send you one.