In Bhutan they say that contemplating death five times a day brings happiness.
5 times a day? That’s a lot. I know because I recently added the app WeCroak to my phone and it reminds me of my morality five times each 24 hour period.
Here’s three sample texts I received.
I believe that you’re here on Earth for a short time, and while you’re here, you shouldn’t forget it.
And day to day, life is a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful earth is, is to see it from the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.
Ursula K. Le Guin
If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.
What’s the idea? You might think of the person who thinks about death as somehow stern and heroic, staring bravely into the abyss. Or as a person neurotically obsessed with their own mortality.
But that’s not the idea. Instead, it’s that people who are comfortable and familiar with death, are happier.
Now, I still think death is a bad thing. And frankly, I’m terrified about it some of the time. My experience is though that I can either contemplate mortality somewhat calmly in the light of day or it wakes me up in the middle of the night in terror. Give me the former any day. Not thinking about it all doesn’t seem to be an option for me. Damn philosophy education!
Thinking about death has unexpected other benefits too. The fact of my death is connected to my comfort in a two piece bathing suit. Put simply: Life is really horribly short. Who cares what others think?
My thinking about death is connected to my body positivity. This really is the only skin we’ve got. Enjoy it.
Here’s a cheery memento mori that’s hanging in my office.
Image description: A painting on wood of a grinning reaper with bright green teeth.
I think memento mori serve another purpose too. They make us realize this isn’t a trial run or a dress rehearsal. We make better decisions, so the argument goes, if we make them in knowledge of our deaths and the deaths of others in our lives.
It doesn’t mean living each day as if it’s your last. That could lead to some very bad choices. It does mean paying attention to how much time we have.
Imagining your life in weeks is often helpful. See here. Tim Urban writes, “Sometimes life seems really short, and other times it seems impossibly long. But this chart helps to emphasize that it’s most certainly finite. Those are your weeks and they’re all you’ve got. Given that fact, the only appropriate word to describe your weeks is precious. There are trillions upon trillions of weeks in eternity, and those are your tiny handful.”
How will you fill them? In the Tail End, Urban, writes about the effect of thinking of his life in weeks. He thinks about how many times he’ll go swimming in the ocean, eat a pizza, or read a book.
But more starkly and importantly he thinks about relationships.
“What I’ve been thinking about is a really important part of life that, unlike all of these examples, isn’t spread out evenly through time—something whose [already done / still to come] ratio doesn’t at all align with how far I am through life:
I’ve been thinking about my parents, who are in their mid-60s. During my first 18 years, I spent some time with my parents during at least 90% of my days. But since heading off to college and then later moving out of Boston, I’ve probably seen them an average of only five times a year each, for an average of maybe two days each time. 10 days a year. About 3% of the days I spent with them each year of my childhood.
Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.
When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life. If I lay out the total days I’ll ever spend with each of my parents—assuming I’m as lucky as can be—this becomes starkly clear…
It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.”
Sometimes I need that reminder on holidays.
I have the tendency to treat my visits to places as scouting expeditions. I’m just here to plan the second trip. It’s skulking rather than experiencing. Next time, you might say, I’ll take part in that Tahitian dance lesson. This time I’ll sit out.
There may not be a next time. This is it. I may never visit French Polynesia again, as much as I’d like to. Think twice to saying no to new experiences. Live life now. Go go go! I’m a person who needs that reminder. No dress rehearsal, this is our life, to quote Gord Downie.
David Benatar begins his book The Human Predicament this way, “We are born, we live, we suffer along the way, and then we die—obliterated for the rest of eternity. Our existence is but a blip in cosmic time and space.”
Unlike Benatar whose view about the time we do have is largely gloomy, I’m interested in making the best of my blip. Thinking about how short that blip passes focuses attention and it makes it easier not to bother with trivial things. Dance, love, connect, sparkle, and shine. Make it a great blip.