“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” – Seneca
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” – Marcus Aurelius
One of the epiphanies associated with adopting the secular worldview is the realization that this is the only life we have. There is not a single shred of evidence that there is anything waiting for us on the other side of death. Oftentimes the contemplation of this fact prevents some from adopting a secular viewpoint in spite of being convinced by the arguments and evidence. I’m sure you’ve heard the objection, “I can’t believe we live and die and then that is it.” This fact is so unpalatable for some that it elicits an emotional response that overrides the conclusions of reason.
For me, this realization was a very visceral epiphany. The understanding that this is our one and only life, rather than being a strictly intellectual acquisition, resonated deep inside me and caused me to reevaluate just about every aspect of my life both in the present and what I had planned moving forward in the future. Prior to this, I felt like I had all the time in the world and if I didn’t get to it in this life well, there was always eternity (of the Catholic variety) waiting and there would certainly be time o’plenty to get to it, whatever it happened to be. All that changed with the realization that once you got that tap on the shoulder letting you know it was time to leave the party, that was that. The party wasn’t over, it would continue on but you had to leave never, ever to return.
What goes through your mind, dear reader, when you contemplate this fact? Is it something you push to the side, glancing at it occasionally with averted vision or is it something you embrace each day? Some might say that to constantly focus on one’s death is a morbid view and an unhealthy thing. Nothing could be further from the truth!
The Stoics, Greek and Roman philosophers, understood the importance of meditating daily on the idea of Memento Mori, roughly translated “One day you too will die.” They exhorted those practicing the Stoic disciplines to keep this fact in mind each and every day. In addition to being a philosophical framework, Stoicism is also a mental discipline and, like any discipline is something that is to be practiced. Was your experience of the realization of your eventual death something that motivated you and caused you to appreciate even more this one and only life we all have? Then the Stoic practice of being constantly cognizant of this fact each and every day will continue that even more so. More importantly, it will motivate you to change your behavior. Speaking from personal experience the awareness of my own unavoidable death is the driving force that provides meaning to what I choose to invest my time and energy in. I don’t have an unlimited amount of time and each and every day I am taking more and more from less and less. Every second is precious to me and I am careful about how I spend my time and the activities I invest that precious time in. Far from draining the value of our life as the religious would have you believe, it adds meaning to it which is the very thing the religious claim is lacking in the secular worldview. There are other philosophies that also take somewhat the same view towards death as the Stoics but I have found that the Stoics have a special appeal to people who hold to a secular worldview. There is other wisdom to be mined from the Stoics but nothing as transformative as Memento Mori. If you are looking for a framework upon which to hang your secular worldview give the Stoics a good look. Practice the different disciplines starting with Memento Mori and see how transformative it can be.
“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” – Charles Darwin