“I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” — Epictetus
Recently, I have been attending more funerals than I have parties and social events. Is this simply what growing older entails?
I can remember when I first experienced a death. My grandfather, who was an amazing human being, passed when I was only 11 years old.
Evidently, this caused me quite a lot of stress and anguish as I was close with him. Yet, once it was all over and time passed on, I thought about him less and less and my infantile mind focused on more positive things. In fact, I think I was pretty obsessed with collecting Lord of the Rings figurines and Yu-gi-oh cards around this time.
Even though I understood the permanence of death, it never really struck me until my later years. I used to just accept that I’d see them again at some stage.
However, with education and growing up, the idea of the afterlife isn’t as easy accepted. After all, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were all just manifestations of our imaginations, nurtured by our elders of course.
At almost 29 years old, I’ve seen and experienced my fair share of tragedies. Many that just emphasised how fragile human life truly is.
Given this unsought for wisdom, it isn’t uncommon to feel a sense of fear and anxiety when touched by Death’s cold presence.
I hate being afraid, but I’ve come to realise that fear is a prerequisite to courage. You cannot be brave without first having feared.
Death causes terror in the lives of the God-loving, the atheists, the omnist but not the Stoic. So, how can it be that a simple practitioner of a philosophy can overcome the fear of death?
Well, I previously published an article — which focused on the dichotomy of control. A core concept, the most important in my opinion, which helps us to understand our sphere of control. What is within my ability to control (the internal) and what is not (the external).
Initially, it may be hard to accept the idea of the dichotomy of control. I, myself, had to really shift my perspectives after reading about it. But once you understand, it seems like a fool’s idea to believe otherwise.
The Stoic fears not his own demise, yet learns how to accept it. Stoicism teaches us to accept the natural order of life and to use our greatest gift to do so. This is the power of reasoned choice. We can choose how we respond to the idea of Death. Do we fight against a natural cause or do we shift our view to accept it as neither good nor bad? The latter of course.
In theory, this should help us to overcome the fear and anxiety surrounding the topic of death, yet it isn’t always so easy.
My grandfather accepted his end with grace and dignity. This astounded me as I couldn’t fathom how he could be so calm with knowing the coming days would be his last. Did he not care? Was he a Stoic or was he simply too exhausted to fight back? Well, I will never know. But what I do know is that there are certain things we can do to help us feel more at ease with our finitude.
This is an ancient practice that many have used to help prepare for the trials of life. It is an act of negative visualisation in order to prepare you for things that may go wrong.
Now, I know what you are thinking, “Mark, how the hell can this be good for you?!”. Well, let me explain. It isn’t a meditation enveloped in pessimism, but rather a practice where you can view it from a place of fortitude and optimism.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” — Seneca
You cannot prepare for or prevent a thing if you aren’t conscious of it. Meditating on what could go wrong allows you to envision the way in which you could respond to fortune’s harshest and heaviest blows.
Let’s take an example of how this can be used in an everyday situation. Before my last judo competition, I spent time visualising how the fights could go. Everyone tells you to have a game plan, to lean into your strengths. In a perfect world, everything would go to plan and you could do your best throw. But, life isn’t so simple and it is thus important to imagine what could go wrong when you are on the tatami.
If my opponent has greater strength or speed and I cannot use my abilities the way I usually would, what then can I do? This is how you can use premeditatio malorum. If my throw fails and I am countered, how can I respond to this? Well, I must prepare for the worst — sometimes I simply fail and I must accept this.
You cannot win at everything but you can accept it with grace and dignity.
I believe in this practice for helping to accept my own finitude, yet it isn’t one that I would recommend for everyone.
Instead, you may wish to practice another technique.
Memento Mori Meditation
“Remember you will die” is the meaning of the above phrase. It has become a sort of mantra for many practitioners of stoicism when they are reflecting and meditating on their lives.
It can seem a little morbid at first glance, but the idea is to use it as a tool to practice gratitude.
Sure, we all know that our deaths our inevitable, but how often do we take the time to remember the finite time we have? In turn, we can then focus more on the present moment and fully embrace what life has to offer us.
Instead of remaining ignorant of the fact, show appreciation for that you still draw breath. That you can still wake up and attempt to live well. To enjoy the moments of beauty all around you.
Let the pettiness of trivial matters dissolve and do away with the complaints of how hard it is to actually live. For one day, you will not be here.
You can look through the lens of mortality and see how precious everything truly is.
Write a list of everything you can be grateful for right now, not what you would like in an ideal world by the way! Just find an appreciation for what is good in your life now.
You see, we are all on the clock. Yet, we act like we have infinite time to spend.
We waste away moments of could-be-magnificence in meaningless actions. Materials, fame and fortune become what is most important and we focus our attention outwardly on such things.
We ignore what is inside of us. We silence the thoughts of hysteria around the topics of death, misfortune and despair.
It is a fool’s errand to chase external things as a means to distract yourself from it.
Accept what is. Meditate so that you gain clarity and comfort on the matter. Do this so that you can live well.
Memento Vivere — Remember to live. Enjoy the time that is given to you on this planet and do not despair. For there is more beauty and preciosity in moments that do not last forever.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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