“A guy walks into a bar…school…grocery store…and is gunned down.”
A Year In the Death 3/29/21
Exactly one week ago this afternoon I stopped by my local King Soopers to pick up a few things after my swim workout at Lifetime Fitness.
In a matter of minutes, I had chosen my fruit, crab, and milk, said hello to a number of workers I see on a regular basis, and used the self-checkout, because of how small my order was this time.
It was a typical errand — one I have completed thousands of times before.
A few hours later, I took a break from working on the leadership book I’m writing to peruse my bookmarked news sites, including the Denver Post. So, imagine my shock when I saw the headline: “Active Shooter Situation at Boulder King Soopers.”
Now, that wasn’t the same King Soopers location I had just visited — although over the years I have made similar stops at that location after hiking, running, or working in Boulder (which is about 20 minutes from where I live). But the headline still caused my stomach to drop. And that sick feeling only intensified as I followed the unfolding events that afternoon.
Given the title I chose for this piece, you might assume this is yet another plea for gun control after yet another mass shooting. But you would be wrong. While I obviously have strong views on that controversial topic, I’ll leave that heated discussion to others — including former President Barack Obama.
Instead, I want to use the tragedy in South Boulder as reminder to my readers of one of the constant themes of this year-long examination of death: Memento Mori (“Remember You Will Die”).
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the concept of Memento Mori has a long, illustrious history. It’s reported that slaves were placed behind Roman emperors to continuously whisper this Latin saying in the emperor’s ear as they marched in parades. They did so to remind the emperor that, even though he was the most powerful man on earth and currently was basking in the glory of his citizens, his ending would be no different than those of the poorest Romans lining the streets: death.
Thankfully, I don’t own any slaves to remind me. Instead, I carry this coin in one of my pockets at all times — or place it in its holder on my desk, where it sits now as I type. I purchased it years ago from Ryan Holiday’s Dailystoic.com. And for me, it’s the perfect talisman to keep me grounded when:
- I am angry, frustrated, distraught, or feeling any other strong negative emotion…I simply look at the skull and think “Remember you will die.”
- I am basking in the glow of happiness, prosperity, or love…I simply look at the skull and think “Remember you will die.”
- I start to think more of myself than I should or otherwise forget how absolutely insignificant I am in the greater universe…I simply look at the skull and think “Remember you will die.”
- I get the sad news that someone I love has died (as I did just over a month ago when I lost my dear godmother)…I simply look at the skull and think “Remember you will die.”
Now, I’m not saying you have to buy your own Memento Mori coin. I’m simply encouraging you to figure out some way of reminding yourself daily: “Remember you will die.” I promise that keeping that thought in the front of your mind, instead of buried as deeply as possible in the back of it, will change you and your perspective on a whole host of things — especially when combined with the thought expressed on the back of the coin.
“You Could Leave Life Right Now…”
The other side of the coin contains a powerful message as well. “You could leave life right now…” is the first half of a well-known quote by one of the greatest Roman emperors, a man who may have been the closest thing to Plato’s ideal of “the philosopher king” the West has ever seen: Marcus Aurelius.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
I would argue that an entire philosophy of life (and death) is contained in these 16 words. We just need to heed Marcus’ advice. To illustrate how that might be possible, let me share a few examples of how I attempt to heed it:
- Whenever I start to get angry at someone, whether a loved one or a complete stranger, I touch or look at this side of the coin and remind myself that my next thought, word, or action could be the last of my life. So what do I want it to be?
- When I am engaged in some frivolous, time-wasting activity such as surfing social media or watching television, I touch or look at this side of the coin and remind myself that my next thought, word, or action could be the last of my life. So what do I want it to be?
- When I tell a loved one that I’m “too busy” to do something with them, I touch or look at this side of the coin and remind myself that my next thought, word, or action could be the last of my life. So what do I want it to be?
Am I always successful at following Marcus’ advice? Of course not — I’m human! But I have found that placing my next thought, word, or action in the context of it being the last of my life usually helps me think, speak, or act in a better way than I would have without the reminder.
This is an important discipline to practice. Because the reality is that at some point, a thought, word, or action will be the last of my life.
So, what would you like your last thought, word, or action to be? Perhaps you don’t want to think about that right now. After all, you have plenty of live left, right?
I’m sure that’s what each of the 10 individuals who lost their lives last Monday afternoon as they went about their typical routines were thinking as well. Which is why you ignore Marcus’ advice at your own peril.
This is part of a year-long series I’ve entitled “A Year in the Death.” As I discussed in my first entry on January 1, I am going to contemplate and write about death each day of 2021. Some days, my thoughts and writings may be detailed essays. On others, they may be little more than the contemplation of a quote about death or a piece of art representing death or dying. Also, I may not share every daily contemplation with you, reserving my thoughts to my private journal. But I am committed to the practice and invite you to follow along throughout the course of the year.