For years, I thought momento mori (“remember death”), a common precept in Stoic philosophy, was a cynical expression. Remembering death seemed opposed to embracing life. Why focus on the end of a process I love so much? Naively, I thought this was similar to other expressions I took to be cynical, such as “we’re born to die” and “we’ll be dead soon, so nothing really matters.” Eventually, however, I began to appreciate the power of reflecting on my own mortality.
After reading Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life—an elaboration on the idea of remembering death—I saw more acutely that my life is finite. I felt a newfound urgency to achieve my goals, appreciate my friends, and concern myself less with the opinions of others. And “remembering death” helped me reorient my priorities, which benefitted my thoughts, feelings, and actions.
An article that also addresses this issue is “The Tail End” by Tim Urban. Urban encourages us to think about the remaining portion of our lives in terms of events and activities instead of years (or other units of time) as most of us do. By thinking of the future in terms of events, the time we have left is concretized: This underscores the brevity of our lives by revealing how often we can expect to enjoy our favorite activities, and experience new things, in the future.
For example, let’s assume that someone is thirty-five years old and will live to ninety. Let’s also assume that he likes snowboarding and goes once a year. He doesn’t have fifty-five years of snowboarding left, he has fifty-five occasions of snowboarding left—most likely fewer if he’s incapable of snowboarding in old age. Here’s an example from Urban:
I’ve been thinking about my parents, who are in their mid-60s. During my first 18 years, I spent some time with my parents during at least 90% of my days. But since heading off to college and then later moving out of Boston, I’ve probably seen them an average of only five times a year each, for an average of maybe two days each time. 10 days a year. About 3% of the days I spent with them each year of my childhood.[With my parents] being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.
When we think about our relationships in terms of how many events remain with the people who matter most, we can better measure and use our time left.
Philosophers from antiquity made the case to seize the day and remember life is finite, and Urban gives us a more concrete picture of why we should. Our life is full of discrete events, and knowing roughly how many we have left underscores their significance.
Read Urban’s interesting article here.