Memento Mori | 10

Because life is short; because death doesn’t make life pointless, it makes it purposeful. So what does it look like to take this idea and turn it into a habit? 

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Episode Transcript

This is The Good List — I’m Tsh Oxenreider.

This is a habit.

There’s a short story that’s pretty dark and somewhat disturbing; it’s written by Jonathan Nolan, and his brother, Christopher Nolan, eventually turned it into a movie. The short story is called Memento Mori, and it’s about a man who has anterograde amnesia; that is, he cannot remember things for more than a few minutes. So he lives his life by lists and notes he leaves himself because once he realizes who he is and what’s happening, he knows it won’t be long until he’ll forget again and has to start the entire process over. We’re talking every 10 minutes or so. It’d be a miserable way to live.

But what this rather depressing story illustrates is there in the title: Memento Mori. Memento, which is what his brother’s film is named, is Latin for ‘remember.’ It’s where our English word memento comes from — an object kept specifically for the purpose of remembering: a person, an event;  like a souvenir.

Anyway, this dark short story isn’t a work of art for this episode’s Good List. It’s a phrase that I believe can be turned into a really useful habit — but I gotta explain what I mean; otherwise, I really do sound morbid.

Memento Mori is a Latin phrase that means, “remember you will die.” It’s about remembering your death — meaning, like what Benjamin Franklin said about it and taxes, it’s a certainty that it will happen, 100%. There is no getting around it.

So, hey listener: remember this — you’re going to die. I am, too. So are your kids, your spouse, your friends, your neighbors, your dog, anything alive that you love. It’s all going to die, as are you.

So how on earth is this idea possibly on the Good List? And even more, how can this morbid Latin phrase be framed as a habit? It all sounds very Goth, and perhaps it is. But it’s also the most human and human-focused concept we could think of, and if you take this old Latin phrase and incorporate it into your everyday life in just the right way, it could become the most beautiful, life-giving thing you could possibly imagine. I’m still wrapping my brain around it because I feel like to talk about this idea is to step on hallowed ground. Memento Mori. Let’s get into what this looks like for us regular, 21st-century living people with jobs and kids and errands to run, right after this short break. Be right back.

Alright, I’m back. Memento Mori: remember you will die. Now, I’m bringing this up right now, if you’re listening to this episode as it goes out because next week on the liturgical calendar is what’s called Ash Wednesday, which is also the first day of Lent. I think it’s helpful to talk about these two ideas for just a little bit before swinging back to Memento Mori, although the idea of reflecting on your death was written about since the time of Socrates, so this isn’t new.

Ash Wednesday is 6.5 weeks before Easter Sunday, and we can guesstimate that the tradition began sometime in the 7th century (so it’s been around a long time). It’s a day set aside to start the season of Lent, which is a season of penance and fasting for 40 days (except for Sundays). Lent ends on Easter Sunday, which then begins the season of Eastertide, which lasts for 50 days. Working backward: if the season of Easter is about remembering the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and if the season Lent is about remembering our humanity and brokenness by way of fasting and preparation, then Ash Wednesday is about remembering that this life is not all there is and that because this life is so short, it’s good to remember whose we are, what should matter to us, and why we should bother caring. At an Ash Wednesday service, the priest marks your forehead with ashes (usually burned from last year’s Palm Sunday service palms), and says the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” 

Basically, you’re not that special, you’re made of just one of a billion bits of organic matter that have walked this earth, and hey, guess what — it’s not gonna last that long because soon you’re gonna just be dust again. Fantastic, right?

Well, I think so, and I think you should, too. And this is what I mean by cultivating a habit of ‘memento mori’ in your life.

It’s good to remember that life is short, but not in a reckless carpe diem, do whatever you want because nothing matters way. In fact, I mean totally the opposite: life is short, so everything matters, the big and small. The decisions you make, like who you marry or where you live or what major stands you’re going to take in life, are so important because you only have one life to live, and it’ll go by in a blink of an idea, so take those risks, make those changes, do that thing you’re scared of. And also? The little things in life that feel inconsequential, or boring — those matter too, because life is short, which means every second is compounded and ads up to the total sum of your days. So changing those diapers for the hundredth time, or choosing kindness when you want to say something snarky, or putting down your phone to go on a walk and enjoy the sunset without feeling the need to capture and share it, as though it wouldn’t happen otherwise… these are all small, daily decisions and things we do that matter. Because life is short. Because memento mori. Death doesn’t make life pointless, it makes it purposeful. 

So what does it look like to take this idea and turn it into a habit? What do I mean by making a habit of ‘memento mori,’ of remembering that you will die? Well, I guess for me, when I think of this in practice I think of legacy — the idea of what we leave behind. Remembering that I’ll die means I want to leave a net positive footprint here on earth, in different ways:

  • It means leaving for my family tree a legacy of a rich spiritual life that applies inward and outwardly.
  • It means doing my best to not be a financial burden when I’m older, and maybe even leaving behind a gift that could be used for good. Along with that, it means not spending money on temporary things, and to channel my money towards things I actually care about.
  • It means taking care of my body so that I’m healthy for as long as possible.
  • For me, it means prioritizing work that leaves a benefit for the collective greater good.

Now, I don’t mean thinking about this sort of big stuff all day long. All this is simply about keeping the end in mind, that remembering life is short, so have hope that the drudgery isn’t all there is, and that the exciting parts are fleeing and aren’t the full measure of whether life is good. 

So there are a few ways to build a ‘memento mori’ habit. 

I follow a nun on Twitter named Sister Teresa Alethia, who tweets a lot about Memento Mori — in fact, a few Lents ago she kept a ceramic skull on her desk the entire time as a daily, practical reminder, and it changed her life. She’s a wonderful follow on Twitter with a really cool story of going from atheist to nun, and she actually has a devotional and journal devoted to the idea of MM — I’ll link to it in the show notes, if you’re interested. She’s also got a great Spotify playlist on MM.

Now even though there are historical ties to memento mori with Lent and Ash Wednesday, you don’t have to be a Christian to still practice the idea of remembering your death — there are also connections to Stoicism. 

The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius also wrote a lot about the idea of memento mori; in his private journal he wrote, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” The Daily Stoic has a memento mori coin you can carry around in your pocket as a physical reminder to live life well. I’ll link to that in the show notes as well, but even if you didn’t want to buy something, you could dedicate something unique and your own as a memento (see what I did there?) to remind you of memento mori. It could be something as simple as adding a penny to your pocket or wearing a particular pin, or some piece of jewelry. Basically, there’s something simple and sacred about carrying something with you all the time that reminds you of the brevity of life.

Some people also get tattoos. Do a quick internet search for memento mori tattoos, and you’ll see a ton of ideas. Having something permanently etched on your body, to carry you most likely to the end of your life, is a really physical, tangible way to remember the ephemeral state of your body — and therefore, to treat it well, because it’s the only one you’ve got.

I also find the practice of nightly or daily examen to pair well with memento mori. Examen is often nicknamed ‘backwards prayer’ because it’s about praying over things that already happened — reflecting at night on the day you just spent, and noticing where God’s hand was throughout it all. These days, I’ve been doing this in the morning about the day before (this is simply because I’m a morning person, and I think clearer then) — a simple reflection of what goodness showed up in the past 24 hours. I write one thing I’m grateful for in my line-a-day journal; purposely just one thing because it helps me notice even the smallest details. It helps me realize how much I have to be grateful for, and that I don’t want to spend my short life noticing only the negatives. This practice pairs beautifully with a cultivated habit of memento mori — life is beautiful, and I should notice it every single day.

There’s a therapist named Nick Wingnall who’s written about how he’s used the idea of memento mori in his practice with clients, by adding a deeper dimension he calls ‘memento contendere’ – remember that you will struggle. He helps clients by walking them through the practice of intentionally and mentally walking through anticipated struggles — what they’ll feel like, what’s the worst that could happen, the disappointment you’ll feel when they do — not as a method of Eeyore-ing your way through life, but instead to remember that hard things are just part of life, and when we anticipate them, we still struggle with them but we’re not surprised by them. I’ll link in the show notes as well more details of his specific thoughts, in case it’s an encouragement to you.

If you’re not part of a liturgical, sacramental Christian church, consider finding a nearby Ash Wednesday service. They’re for anybody, not just Christians; all are welcome. Services at our parish usually happen at noon, during lunch breaks, and in the evening, and they’re not too long — you’ll hear a short message and if you want, you can get marked by ashes as a physical reminder of your short life.

And finally, you could even do something as simple as write the phrase ‘memento mori’ daily in your journal, either during the 40 days of Lent or all the time — again, not to be morbid, but to remind you that your life will one day end and that your daily to-do list, habit practices, decision-making, and rest will be more fully appreciated and more viscerally applied in your life with memento mori in mind.

Ultimately, yes, memento mori is good practice for Ash Wednesday and Lent, but really, it’s good all the time, and it’s good to do regularly. As sister Teresa Alethia says, “Meditating on death periodically is unfruitful and unpleasant. This practice has the potential to reap abundant fruits in people’s lives, but it needs to become a habit. …So, though meditation on death is definitely appropriate to this liturgical season, I encourage people to integrate it into their daily lives all year round. We can die at any time! So, there’s no break from preparing our hearts, minds and wills for that reality.” The writer Muriel Spark says, “It is difficult for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form the habit while young” and that, “If I had my life to live over again, I would form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is not another practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life.”

So — because death is inevitable, and because it makes life so short, making a habit of memento mori makes my Good List. It helps me live with more intention, joy, and gratitude.

Hi Tsh! My name is Anna and I am a Middle School drama teacher and high school theater director in Asheville, North Carolina. I’m calling to tell you about one of my new favorite habits, and it’s doing my nails. I have been somebody who loves to do their nails for a long time and it always makes me feel like a real live human but for a long time, I haven’t actually taken the time to make space to do them. This year I decided every weekend, usually on Sunday afternoon, I’m going to take the time to do my nails. So whether that’s stick-ons or I go get them done or I paint them myself, which is usually what I do. I have formed a new habit of doing my nails and it might sound simple and vain but I have found it extremely therapeutic and fun. Hope that you have a lovely weekend. Thanks for all you do! Bye.

If you like this podcast, I’d love you to consider supporting it by becoming a paying subscriber of my newsletter called Books & Crannies. It’s a small way to make a REALLY big impact on keeping the lights on at the headquarters of this new podcast. If you’re a fan of supporting writers, podcasts you like, and generally making the internet a good place instead of a dumpster fire, then support the people who are making it the good place you like. Between us, I’d love The Good List to be almost completely listener and reader-supported, so you’re bringing us closer to that goal when you become a subscriber at only $7 per month or $60 per year. Hey, you could consider it a memento mori sort of practice, of channeling your resources to things you truly care about — and I’ll be really grateful. I’ve got a link for signing up in the show notes of this episode, #10, or go to thegoodlistshow.com/support.

When I hang out online, besides chatting with my Books & Crannies subscribers, I’m mostly on twitter @tsh and sometimes on IG @tshoxenreider.

And I’d love to hear from you! Leave a voicemail at (401) 684-GOOD, which goes directly to voicemail; or, record your voice and email the voice file. Just state your name, where you’re from, and what idea, work of art, habit, or thing is making your life just a bit better, and maybe I’ll feature you here on The Good List. For reminders on how to do this, links to everything I’ve talked about in this episode, and for a full transcript, go to thegoodlistshow.com.

Thanks so much to Anna for sharing her current habit that’s making her Good List. Music for the show is by Kevin MacLeod, and thanks, as always, to Caroline TeSelle for her help, as well as my furry intern, Ginny. I’m Tsh Oxenreider — thanks for listening to The Good List.

Hey guys! In case you’ve still got this Simple feed in your favorite podcast player, I wanted to remind you about my new podcast — it’s called The Good List, and it’s an iteration of some of your favorite episodes here on this now-ended show. In each one, I’m talking about just one idea, a thing, a habit, or a work of art that makes life a bit better. We’re releasing our 10th episode this week, and episodes are short so they’re super binge-able. So if you haven’t yet, come over and listen! You can find it at thegoodlistshow.com, and as a little treat for you, I’ve got one of the episodes right here — this one’s about an idea, and I think you’ll like it. So enjoy, then make sure you subscribe to the new show — look for it wherever you listen to podcasts, or head straight over to thegoodlistshow.com.

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