In a world built to keep us safe, there is power in remembering how fragile we really are.
There is a story, probably apocryphal, about Alexander the Great. The story goes that he had an advisor, who followed him around, and whose only job (or at least his main job) was to go with Alexander in public, and whisper in his ear, “You are Mortal. You are just a man. You are Mortal.”
This was simply to keep Alexander from believing what his troops —and his enemies— believed: That he was a god among men. And it worked. By being forced to admit his weaknesses, Alexander rarely overextended himself, and was able to survive long enough to secure his place in the annals of history.
Few —if any— of us are modern day Alexanders, but our lives are so safe, so privileged, that most days, we are never in danger, never forced to think about our own mortality. Everything we are surrounded by is designed to reduce danger, to increase our own survivability.
We drive cars with airbags and seatbelts and crumple-zones, eat food that is regulated and tested and sterilized on a scale that is incredible to imagine. We have medicine that can cure nearly any malady that any of us will encounter (statistically speaking).
That is amazing! Compared to men in Alexander’s time, we might just be gods. And life is so safe that many of us start to believe that.
I know I used to.
We take for granted the things that keep us safe, put the danger out of mind so completely that it seems crazy to imagine we would ever need to work to survive. But maybe we should be forced to confront that inevitability.
That knowledge —the understanding, that one day you will die, and that day could be today— is powerful. It pushes you into the things you should do —exercise, eating right, embracing relationships fully, etc.— in a way that no other motivation can. And it can be the push you need to make the right decisions.
My advisor is my motorcycle helmet. Riding a motorcycle as my main form of transport forces me into a different space, mentally. It crowds out the humdrum, sterile, homogenized way of looking at the world, and injects danger that cannot be ignored.
Before I go anywhere, I am wrapped in leather, composite plastics, carbon fiber, and steel. And I know that if I’m not on my game, it might not be enough. Sitting beside me in a restaurant, when the waitress asks if I want a beer, it whispers
You are Mortal
and I ask for a coke instead. Sitting at home, time for my workout is coming up, and I feel lazy.
Tomorrow, you could be forced to fight for your life
And I get off the couch and put on my running shoes. I’m not advocating for motorcycles —well, not at the moment — or dropping everything and going skydiving. But even if the most dangerous thing you do in your day is driving to work, it will pay dividends to be aware of your mortality.
Find your advisor, and let it remind you to pay your credit card, to eat that broccoli, to call that cute barista who gave you his or her number. Carpe Diem, it whispers, because
You are Mortal.
Also by Thomas: 4 Things You Need to Forget in Order to Chase Your Dreams