A Year in the Death 1/3/21
In yesterday’s piece I discussed the front side of the Memento Mori coin I carry as a daily reminder of my mortality. (If you haven’t read that short essay, Memento Mori means “Remember you will die.”) Today, I’ll introduce you to the other side.
“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.
Marcus had a lot to say about life and death, so you’re going to encounter him often if you follow this project throughout its entirety. Therefore, let me give you a quick, high-level introduction to the man. (I recommend Ryan Holiday’s Lives of the Stoics for a more-detailed biography. And if you’re looking for a truly deep dive into the life of Marcus, check out Anthony R. Birley’s Marcus Aurelius.)
Marcus lived from 121–180 A.D. and ascended to the throne in 161 A.D. after the death of his adoptive father, emperor Antoninus Pius. During his 19-year reign, Marcus faced nearly nonstop war, a horrific global pandemic, a depleted treasury, and a number of personal tragedies (including his own poor health and the deaths of eight of his 13 children before they reached adulthood).
And yet by all accounts, he was one of the greatest leaders the West has ever known. He was fair, intelligent, humble, forgiving, and a lifelong learner — as chronicled in his work Meditations. This book, which can best be described as Marcus’ private workbook/journal on leadership, philosophy, ethics, and life & death in general, has influenced generations of leaders for almost 2,000 years.
How great of a man was Marcus? Judge for yourself…
Late in Marcus’ life, Avidius Cassius — one of Marcus’ closest friends and most trusted generals — attempted a coup. Instead of being angry, Marcus welcomed the opportunity for teaching and healing, reportedly telling his advisors and soldiers:
“Let us settle this affair well and show to all mankind there is a right way to deal even with a civil war…[It is a chance] to forgive a man who has wronged one, to remain a friend to one who has transgressed friendship, to continue faithful to one who has broken faith.”
And when he found out that an assassin had eliminated the general on his behalf, Marcus was distraught because it stole the opportunity for forgiveness of and reconciliation with a friend. He then pardoned Cassius’ collaborators, which included a number of Roman senators. And he asked his own angry supporters seeking violent retribution to remain calm and to not seek vengeance on his behalf.
Raise your hand if you’d like a man such as Marcus leading our nation at this moment in time.
Now that you have a sense of the man whose quote appears on the back of the coin, let’s focus on that quote. It’s from Meditations Book 2.11:
“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 it is inevitable that at some point, a thought, word, or action will be the last of my life. As will some thought, word, or action be the last of yours. So let’s make it a good one.
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.