Memento Mori: Remember that you have to die. “You could leave life right now,” says Epictetus. Yes, it’s a sobering thought, but that’s a good thing. Steve Jobs agrees,”Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of think you have something to lose.”
Our demise is set. We will all, one day, stop breathing. Our hearts will stop beating. Our brains will stop thinking. We will cease to be. Or will we?
Regardless of the spiritual—and perhaps paranormal—implications of our death, the fact is that we all have a limited time on this planet to do what we must AND none of us know how long that is. Remembering that we are going to die, and perhaps soon, is the best way to really experience life.
As an audio engineer and videographer, I have been to my fair share of funerals. I worked for a church, a large church, and I had to attend more that 100. Some were heart-wrenching, others were humdrum, but the one that stands out most to me was Jennifer’s.
She was my friend. We worked together. She babysat my children. I took hers on backpacking trips. We were like family. She had battled cancer and won, but eventually, it came back. This time, there was no fight to have. It would take her. We all knew it. Most importantly, she knew it.
When she found out, she smiled. I remember her telling my coworkers and I. We were beside ourselves, but she was so peaceful. She knew what she had to do. She knew that tears were not the best way she could spend her energy and she began to spend time in uncommon ways. Over the next several months, she reached out to and touched everyone that she cared about. When it was her time, she left life knowing that everyone she loved had been touched by her. It was a tremendous life.
The funeral was sad. I made a video montage of her life, pouring over pictures and video clips for hour after hour. I cried hard. Then, when the video played at her funeral, people smiled, people laughed, people cried. We all missed her, but looking at her life in fast-forward, I think we all realized that she played her part very well.
Afraid of Living
What Jennifer’s funeral taught me was that the dying don’t always fear death. Conversely, I am often amazed at how many people are afraid of living.
What if? That question has been answered with airplanes, electricity, brain surgery. It has also been answered with fear, depression, stagnation, and ultimately regret. What if is a dangerous beginning to any sentence. Human beings let these words stop them just short of greatness far too often.
I think that the best way to approach what if if is by being intentional about it. When you sit down to look at the future “what if” is fine, but in day-to-day life, avoid what if like the plague. When your wife forgets to text you back, avoid questions like, “What if she got in an accident?” Or “What if she’s out with another man?” Instead only focus on what is. She didn’t text you back, unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary, things are probably fine and maybe she left her phone on silent. If you ask too many what if questions, you will drive yourself mad. Trust me, I speak from personal experience.
What if opens the door to fear and makes it very easy to be afraid of living. That is the worst possible fate. Fear of dying is natural. Fear of living is not. If you are afraid all of the time, there is no way to either enjoy or make anything important out of this one wild life that you’ve been given.
Life is Fast and Slow
We all have experienced how fast life can feel. It seems like we blink and ten years have gone by, except when it doesn’t. When we operate in fear, the clock can slow down to a crawl. When we get into a flow state, the hours seem to be like months and eight-hours later we cannot believe either how fast the time went or how much we have accomplished. Life moves fast and slow simultaneously.
Now we could get into a discussion on the perception of time as a strictly human concept, but let’s digress into a more practical application. Time is a tool. Just like a wrench, if you use time to turn the right nuts, you make life a little better. If you try to use a wrench to pop a plate-glass window into place you just make a dangerous mess.
Time is a commodity. They stopped making more of it a long time ago and it is a finite resource. We need to use it to the best of our ability. This is not going to be a GTD discussion (although there is some great material in this book) it’s about deciding how to use time.
Decision is the key. It’s what Napoleon Hill refers to as “definiteness of purpose.”
“There is one quality which one must possess to win, and that is definiteness of purpose, the knowledge of what one wants, and a burning desire to possess it.” – Napoleon Hill
When we know what we want and have a burning desire to possess it, we can use the tool of time to get it. When we don’t, we are floating on a sea of indecision without a sail. We will be carried wherever the wind and tide takes us. Decision, it seems, may be more important than anything else in determining our success in life.
So what do you want more than anything? Have you ever stopped to really think about it? Or do you have some ethereal list that is disjointed and unexamined?
How to Decide What You Want
The process is different for everyone, but I’ll give you a practical exercise to get you thinking in the right direction. It is one that works for me. I hope and trust that it will work for you too.
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–Corkboard, refrigerator, or a wall you don’t mind sticking those card on.
-Some string or yarn
-A brightly colored highlighter or marker
-2 hours of uninterrupted time
- I’m a big fan of 3×5 note cards(see my post here). Grab 100 of them. The color doesn’t matter, but make sure you have 100, no more, no less.Put on some music, close the door, turn off the TV, and then list what you want. Put one thing you want per card, don’t give yourself time to think, just write them down, as fast as you can. It doesn’t matter what you put down as long as it is something YOU want. Don’t judge yourself. Writing as fast as you can keeps your inner critic from catching up. We’ll use his/her input later in the process.Do you want a new car? Write it down. Your boyfriend/girlfriend to call? Write it down. To herd cats in Malaysia? Like I said: no judgement, write it down. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
- Without rereading them, if possible, put them all up on the wall or corkboard. Use pushpins, tape, bubblegum, or whatever, just make sure they’re up there. Stand back and gaze into the top 100 things that you want. Take it all in. There’s a lot there, isn’t there?Now, if you did this without thinking, there are probably some doubles. That’s good. Maybe they are a little different, but virtually the same. If so, move those together on top of each other. Take that brightly colored marker and circle the top card on the stack. Do it for all the stacks of doubles (or multiples).
- Take the string/yarn and connect like ideas. This is tough to describe without seeing your cards, but as an example: I may have “Write a book” “Speak at TED” and “Have 100,000 blog subscribers” cards on my wall. I would take the yarn and connect these cards.Keep doing this until all the connections are made. If you’ve done it right, your wall should now look like a detective’s wall in a serial killer movie. You might want to cancel your dinner plans, otherwise people will ask too many questions. :)Take out that glorious smartphone you always carry and take a picture of your wall in case you have to take it down.
- Write down the common “want” on the stacks of cards you circled. These are big for you, even if you don’t know why yet. Note the connections on the other cards. What is the theme? How do they connect? What is the commonality in those connections? Note it down.
- Go away from it for 24 hours, or at least until the next day.
- When you come back, does it all still feel right? Is there anything missing? Is there anything that you really don’t want, but wrote down anyway? If so add to your cards or tear some up.DON’T just take the bad ones down. Destroy them, rip them, burn them, use them as toilet paper…just absolutely destroy them. This is important.
- Keep going away and coming back a few hours later until you feel that there is nothing left to change. That’s it. That’s your list. That is what you want.
- Find the common thread in all of it. This might take days, weeks, months.
In the meantime, take the cards you circled and start working on getting those wants fulfilled. When you get one taken care of, move to the next one, then the next. When you finished the circled cards, work down the rest of the list. If your list starts to get thin, you know what to do, right? Start over.
Another way to identify your true desires is to use your journal to identify “loops” in you life. For more on that, please see my talk on Journaling to Nourish the Spirit.