“Carpe Diem, seize the day, boys! Make your lives extraordinary!”
In the classic 1989 film, Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating encourages his students to live extraordinary lives. The Latin phrase “carpe diem,” which means “seize the day,” originated with the Roman poet Horace, who once wrote:
“As we speak, cruel time is fleeing. Seize the day, believing as little as possible in the morrow.”
In expressing that same adage, Keating reminds his students that:
“…each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die.”
Mr. Keating’s words serve as a reminder to everyone to make the most of each moment. A grim reminder that our time on this planet is limited.
It makes us think about the goals and dreams that we have yet to accomplish:
The dream trip to Scandinavia.
Quality time with the grandkids.
That woodworking hobby that you have put off for years.
Keating’s message also touches upon a subject regarded as both morbid and unpleasant. This is probably the most difficult subject to discuss in casual conversations:
The stark realization of our mortality is unsettling. It’s not something you talk about when you hang out with your buddies over a cold beer.
In fact, most people are in denial that one day they will die. And we don’t even want to entertain the prospect of dying.
The ancient Stoics, like everyone else, knew that death was a forgone conclusion. Yet, they have learned to live better, happier, and more fulfilling lives.
By constantly reminding themselves of this reality, the Stoics learn to live and thrive.
Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, once wrote:
“You do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good.”
The Stoics do not avoid the notion of death. For them, it becomes a powerful mindset to seize the day, embrace life, and be more productive.
The momento mori philosophy is probably the key to living life to the fullest. It brings you into the here and now and gives your life context.
This ancient philosophy can be an absurdly powerful motivator to make you appreciate life. It makes you cherish life and make the most out of it while you still can.
Momento mori is a simple reminder for you to treat the present as a gift. It keeps you focused on things that really matter instead of squandering time on trivial pursuits.
Most of the time, we disregard death. We take it for granted that we have the luxury of time.
So, we take our own sweet time to pursue our passion. We grow so preoccupied with the pursuit of wealth, success, and status that we lose sight of their impermanent nature.
Nature works in cycles, and your time to appreciate, savor, and enjoy anything is brief. Everything that breathes comes into being, grows, ages, withers, and decays.
Just like life itself.
When I first realized the impermanence of life and how fleeting it can be, it brought me sadness. Everything seemed to be moving rapidly toward its finale, me included.
Then, one fine day at the dojo, it dawned on me.
It happened more than a decade ago during a typical Kendo practice day at the dojo. This martial art, often known as Japanese fencing, entails donning protective gear while engaging in full-contact sparring with bamboo swords.
The emphasis of this training is on tranquility, self-discipline, and the unity of mind-body-sword.
When you are on the dojo floor in full gear with your sword in hand, everything moves very quickly. You have no time to think or daydream. You’ve got to move. Hit. Slash. Parry. Kill or be killed.
On this practice day, my sensei imparted to me an ancient samurai wisdom that will stay with me forever:
“To win any battle, you must fight as if you are already dead.”
This was my “momento mori” moment!
“Fight as if you are already dead…”
This made a lot of sense to me.
I realized that to fully live my life, I must first embrace the notion that I’m already dead.
This profound quote comes from a 17th century samurai, Miyamoto Musashi. The samurai of ancient Japan believed that death mentally prepared one to enjoy life, conquer fear, and become better warriors.
Miyamoto’s philosophy of self-reliance, mental strength, and discipline can be found in The Book of Five Rings. A classic work on military strategy that also extols the virtues necessary for a strong and content life.
That quote illuminated my mind. It provided me with guidance on how I should spend my life.
I came to the realization that nothing was permanent, therefore I must do the things that mattered most to me.
It inspired me to live life to the fullest and live it up while I still had the chance. And this is so absurdly powerful that it makes me want to seize the day as soon as I awake.
If you ever decide to embrace the momento mori philosophy, you will realize that each hour could be your last. Even though it is rather depressing to consider that you will eventually die, it makes you value and appreciate life.
Think about this:
When you embrace the momento mori philosophy, you’re not alone. Even highly successful entrepreneurs gain wisdom and inspiration from this philosophy.
A few years before his passing, Apple’s Steve Jobs reflected on his own mortality in a commencement speech at Stanford:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
“In the shadow of death, prioritization is easier.”
By having the awareness that time is limited, you’re on a deadline and will feel the urgency of life. You will do your best to create a beautiful life for yourself.
According to a 2019 United Nations survey, the average life expectancy worldwide is estimated to be 72.6 years. If you are 25 years old, you are about a third of the way through.
Knowing how much time is left gives you the urgency to achieve your dreams and goals. To this end, I use a powerful tool known as The Memento Mori Chart.
It sits my wall as a framed piece of paper and it looks something like this:
On this piece of paper, you can see tiny blocks of squares. If you take a closer look, you’ll see that there are 52 columns across.
It symbolizes the 52 weeks in a year. The 80 rows represent an 80-year lifespan and each cell in the rows symbolizes a week of your life.
On the top left corner is my date of birth. At the bottom of the chart, 80 years later, you see the same date.
The Memento Mori Chart is based on the average human lifespan of 80 years. So has 4,160 dots, representing 4,160 weeks.
The black squares represent the weeks I have actually lived. For each week that had already passed, I paint the square black.
As for the blank ones, it represents how many weeks I aspire to live. It acts as a reminder that I must move quickly to accomplish my goals because time is running out.
Every week, after I filled up a square, I would ask myself how I had lived the previous week:
Did I have a fulfilling week?
If I did, great; it shows that I’m moving in the right direction and that I should keep going.
What if I find the previous week unsatisfactory? Then, I would need to ask myself:
“Why am I not living intentionally?”
“Am I living my life according to other people’s expectations?”
“How can I live this week with more intention?”
Well, that’s what makes this tool so absurdly powerful. It serves as a gentle reminder to stop messing around and take stock of your situation.
The Momento Mori Chart encourages you to rise each morning and seize the day. As if your life depends on it.
(Actually, it does.)
Of course, none of those blank dots are certain to be filled up. It is true that every day could be your final day on earth.
We do not know how much time we have left. The time that is gone is irreplaceable. It will not come back.
But this tool moves us forward in the right direction. A reminder of what matters most and what’s truly important.
This tool is not a grim reminder of your mortality. It merely serves as a guide to help you finish each day knowing that you gave it your best effort.
I like how Ryan Holiday aptly puts it:
“The idea that you’re going to die, and that life is short, is only depressing if you’re thinking about it wrong. If you’re thinking about it right, it should give you a sense of priority. It should let you know what’s important and what you’re trying to do while you’re here on this planet.”
The Momento Mori Chart may inspire you to seize the day, but it may also leave you feeling down. If you’ve made the decision to use it, be forewarned that it could cause unpleasant feelings like anxiety and worry.
Momento mori does more harm than good in situations where people are uncomfortable with the idea of death. Many of us fear the unpredictability that death brings.
Consequently, this leads to the denial of the idea of death. This denial, combined with repressed thoughts of the unavoidable, leads to anxiety, depression, worry, and other bad emotions.
It can also make them fear that all their efforts and everything they do will ultimately be meaningless.
Therefore, the best way to use this tool is to use it to motivate your day. Allow it to guide your thinking.
In the words of the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca:
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
I’ve no doubt that living the life I want requires a great deal of courage. I also understand that if I don’t, I will have a great deal of regret in the end.
End-of-life counseling nurse Bronnie Ware details the epiphanies of the dying in her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. She revealed that the biggest regret in life is living up to other people’s expectations rather than their own.
Having spent years caring for patients in the final weeks of their lives, she identified their five most common regrets:
This was the most common regret of all, as many people had died without fulfilling their dreams.
Every man Bronnie Ware nursed deeply regretted having spent so much of his life “on the treadmill of work existence.”
Many people settled for a mediocre life because they repressed their emotions in order to maintain harmony with others. Most never realized their full potential and many held resentment and animosity that turned into illnesses.
Many had let cherished friendships pass them by because they had become so engrossed in their own lives.
Nurse Ware recounted in her blog:
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits.”
The ancient philosophy of momento mori is a powerful mindset that helps you create urgency in your life. It stops fear from holding you back from relentlessly chasing your dreams.
Are you living your dreams right now? As you fill in the blank squares in your chart, you’ll realize that time and tide wait for no man.
Even as we speak, the clock is ticking. So, get this absurdly powerful mindset into your head and seize the day!
As the poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau once quoted:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I wanted to live deeply and suck out all the marrow of life… To put to rout all that was not life…”
So, like Thoreau, do value the time that you have left and live your life deliberately.
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