Memento Mori. Remember you are going to die.
For the longest time, only serial killers and philosophers backed the idea. So we ignored it. Then Steve Jobs came along with his commencement speech and said memento mori was central to his life. And when a billionaire tells us something we become pavlovian with hope, however dark and gloomy the message.
Memento Mori is an intellectual idiosyncrasy. Strip it down to its elements and you’ll just find the hard-muscled eyes of reality staring at you. Death makes that abstraction real. The more you want to get away from it, the more it dominates your space and thought. It’s hard to even think, forget making decisions inside this space.
And in order to forget, we keep ourselves occupied with something, anything. Anything goes as long as it makes you forget oblivion. So, much against Steve Jobs’ warning in the same speech, we settle for anything.
Morbidity isn’t the problem here as much the whole thought exercise blowing up on your face, doing the very opposite of what it promised. Instead of letting you make important decisions, it leaves you feeling paralyzed, pondering, over and over about the same question:
I will answer that question with another question. In fact, two:
Question 1: Where do you see yourself in a hundred years?
Question 2: What about a thousand years?
This is memento mori without the darkness. The first question, ironic as it may seem, helps you figure out what really matters in the moment. Because in a hundred years, you are going not going to wonder why you did not make a team or land a promotion. You are going to wonder why you did nothing that mattered to you.
The second question ensures you do things that matter to you not because you want to not to impress the loony world, but because you find meaning in them. You have fun doing them.
In a thousand years, there’s going to be no trace of your existence. It won’t take that long, but since you wouldn’t know anyway, let’s run with that delusional belief. Our contemplation on what to do with our lives is dominated by short-term thinking. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought a cuckoo clock back in 2017 just to avoid that. It cost him $42M; expensive given the cuckoo pops out only once every thousand years.
The clock is symbolism for long-term thinking.
We are afraid to try something new not because it could fail but because something in our short-term, short-sighted vision for our life tells us now’s just not the right time. But when you expand the question to a hundred years, now seems like a perfect time. In fact, it seems late.
When you expand on further to a thousand years, you can’t help but laugh at yourself and slap yourself numb for wasting half your life worrying about the dumbest shit.
When I had my “quit the job and travel” thought back in 2017, I spent ten months with my entire body feeling like it was made of heartbeat. Here’s what was worse: even after I quit, I spent the first month of my travels agonizing over whether I had done something irrevocably stupid. And despite that, it has been the greatest phase of my life.
In a hundred years, I would’ve felt stupid if I hadn’t done it. In a thousand years, that may be the only thing I may remember about my life.
Most big decisions are a spiral of what-ifs. The what-ifs help you build lifeboats because everything outside the societal definitions of how to live scares the ever-living shit out of you, preventing you from trying anything. Preventing you from getting on the ship to the unknown, to you. Your whole life is a contingency. But who is going to save your life from you?
Short-term thinking convinces you that your immediate future will be in jeopardy if you try something new. How can you act based on the 100-year thinking idea when one of your primal fears is that you are going to die of starvation in a year? You can plan your life all you want, but you will never know what is going to happen of you in a year. Or five. Or twenty. But a hundred: you know.
You will be mementoem mori-ed. None of this discounts your struggles. None of this means you have to quit your job. None of this means you have to get away from everyone.
What it means is that it’s going to be okay. It’s okay to try and fall flat on your face. It’s okay to be lost and feel miserable. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to disappoint people. And it’s okay to be afraid of death.
What’s not okay is this:
To be afraid to live. To take a shot at feeling alive. Strong. To let the most boring fears stop you. To let money, prestige, legacy, determine what you do this minute, the next. The rest of your life. You will never be okay with that. Not now. Not in a thousand years.