In April of 2017 I put a widget on my phone that reminds me that I’m going to die. This is how it improved my life.
A long time ago I learned about the concept of Momento Mori. It’s a simple phrase that is held up by the trussing of history and hardened by philosophy. It means: “Remember that you must die."
In the 16th century it was all the rage. All across Europe men and women were wearing gothic, somewhat morbid, jewelry that depicted skulls and desecration with the inscription Momento Mori. Why were they wearing such somber memorandums? Well it’s as simple as it sounds: to remember that they are going to die. It was a reminder that our time is limited and that one day we will cease to be.
Its been years since I read about that concept but it has always stuck with me so, one day in April — on a whim — I did a quick search in Android Play for “Momento Mori” and I was pleased with the results.
As of this writing I have roughly 21,204 days left to live.
I determined this number by adding my expected age of “departure” which I came to by averaging three of my grandparent’s ages at which they passed. (Only three as the other did not pass from natural causes.)
Every morning when I pick up my phone, after the alarm has gone off and I’ve taken the puppy out to use the yard: I look at that number. Though you may be inclined to think of it as oppressing, scary, ominous, anxiety inducing and other negative associations: I find it inspiring. This reminder has inspired a bunch of positive behaviors and has had some incredible side effects. Here are a few:
It’s made me a better husband.
Knowing that I’m not long for this world has made me a better husband. When I take account of the days I have left to live it makes me think, however briefly, of how long my wife will live. It is a subtle, yet stabbing, reminder that I only have so many days to make her life wonderful. It’s a reminder that I should gift her with my presence, my affection, and my best intentions. It’s a starter pistol for me to recall all the reasons I love her, and why I should strive to ensure that she returns the sentiment by being my best self.
It’s made me a better employee.
When you not only acknowledge death, but embrace it, I believe it frees you to think of your day to day actions as being in the service of others. When I look at that number I recognize that only a fraction of those days will be spent working — but of those days I should ensure that they help elevate those around me.
It’s made me more energetic.
When that deep nothingness does arrive for me — I want to really be ready for it. And, to help ensure that’s the case: I need to bust-ass every day.
Work hard, play hard, expend energy.
Biologists define life as “irritable” this doesn’t mean that its ill tempered and snaps at others prior to it’s morning coffee, but that it responds to its surroundings. Rocks aren’t irritable: you can step on them all day and the chances of them responding in any fashion are essentially null. But humans, animals, plants, and arguably all rudimentary organisms are irritable. And therefore they expend energy. So, in my mind: I better expend that irritable energy while I have it.
Days are long. They are longer than people give them credit for — and knowing that in the future I’ll be completely void of all energy: I strive to ensure that I sap the most out of these days by giving them as much life as I can. After all, in the end everything is entropy.
This one is perhaps the most obvious, and tangible, result of looking at my numbered days on the daily: trying to add numbers to that total. And, the surest way to do that, is through taking better care of oneself.
Opting for healthier lunches. Taking my vitamins. Making up for my lack of activity behind the desk through routine gym sessions. All of this geared towards an attempt to stay above ground, just a little longer.
Lastly, More Brave.
Keeping death in mind has also led me to be more brave.
Its been a big enabler to speak truth, to be vulnerable, and to make the fool when necessary. Being conscious of your mortality allows you to both take more ownership and to feel less attachment. Less attachment to your personal achievements (elevating the successes of others), and more ownership over failures (taking responsibility for when things fall short).
All of this because, at its core, nothing compares to the “severity” of utter obliteration. In this way, keeping “the number” close at hand is immensely empowering. It’s a powerful reminder that the moments that allow you to define yourself as person are few and fleeting, so you best capitalize on them when you have the chance.
Momento Mori was a raging, wildfire, concept for hundreds of years and it was lost in the tidal rising of technology, business, and mass media. Most people, these days, will regard it as an undesirable concept and purposely position the thought of death into their blind spot in a short sighted attempt to remain “forever young”. But, as I’ve outlined above, there is immense value in remembering that the end comes for us all — and it can propel you to greater levels of appreciation for your days, your colleagues, your work, your health, and your life.