Memento Mori: Keep Death Before Your Eyes

My friends will tell you that I have (from their vantage point) an annoying habit of peppering, on occasion, a standard sign-off with “most likely.”

Colleague: “See you tomorrow, Paul!”

Me: “Yes! Have a good night, and I’ll see you on the morrow…most likely.” (I know, I know — I was born to be an eccentric English teacher. Pay no mind.)

This isn’t me being vague about my plans. Quite the opposite. I agonize over my word because once given, that is that. When I say that I’ll do something or be somewhere, I will unless, of course, I’m dead.

Such declarations, though, seem to catch the hearer off-guard in spite of the fact that my friends (bless them!) have heard me say some variant of it numerous times. People fear death. The mention of it — that specter that always stalks — unsettles. Yet is anything more certain than the fact that we shall, sooner or later, shed this mortal coil?

Perhaps I come off a bit cavalier. I want to be precise about my terms here. I am, I confess, quite worried about dying. Will it be painful? Will I lose my memories? Will I see it coming? And if I do, will it lumber or will it lap languidly at my toes? Will it drag on interminably (a chess game where I just barely avoid checkmate to no purpose), or shall it snatch me in an instant?

Rather, the concept of mortal life ceasing — a reality for all life and by which we are surrounded at all times — doesn’t trouble me overly much.

Here in the Technological Society, though, we don’t have time for Death. We’re quite busy, thank you. My “most likely” is a pall cast over over a conversation, but I don’t mean for that to be the case. I intend the opposite. For like a person who has brushed up against death and feels herself to have a second lease on life, mindfulness of death can help a person cultivate a certain joie de vivre.

There is a traditional Christian practice (and I assume there are similar practices elsewhere, but they are not my tradition) of contemplating the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Setting aside many a modern human’s visceral recoil at such a “parochial” practice, there is wisdom here.

As I’m tempted to lose my temper with a student because he’s essentially shouting, “I DON’T WANT TO LEARN!!!!” whilst allowing himself to distract and be distracted in a dozen different directions, how would I like to react in light of the fact that I might drop dead from a heart attack right after I’ve vented my spleen? Would I want the sting of words, even if they only land in glancing blows, to ring in his and my other students’ ears? No, surely not. I always want my students to know that I love them — even if I may not, in the moment, like them all that much.

If I don’t keep in mind the Four Last Things, I worry that I might rationalize such an outburst by thinking that I can always make amends the next day. I can compliment him on a piece of writing. I can give him a note on his birthday that’s coming up in a couple weeks. I can think of myriad ways that I might mollify my conscience over having been a jerk — having torn a person down rather than steadying his edifice. But tomorrow is not promised.

Note well, I’m not talking about charitable correction. It is the role of parents (primarily) and teachers and others to help form a young person and even friends and fellows when we miss the mark. It is not act of charity to encourage the best whilst failing to smooth out one’s rougher edges.

Universalize this, dear reader. I spend my days working with 13 and 14-year-old children, and so most of my opportunities to grow as a person are occasioned by little humans. None of us was at our best at 14, so in many ways, I’m just along for the ride. Nevertheless, apply it elsewhere.

My parents or grandparents (for some reason it’s always easier to do something for Grandma than it is for Dad…) ask for help with something, but I had other plans for the day. Or your spouse seems harried and overworked and something is clearly on her mind. You’re mentally drained and have a to-do list a mile long. It would be so easy to slink away; you have so much to do, but do you want one of your last actions to be one of selfishness?

Someone cuts you off with obvious malicious intent for no other reason (inattentiveness, preoccupation, anxiety about getting somewhere…) could possibly justify such abhorrent behavior! How does a middle finger or zipping around and the pumping the brakes look as a final action before you’re snuffed out?

There is an addiction or attachment in your (my) life: alcohol, pornography, anger, impatience, video games, materialism, reputation, gossip— none of us is immune because, with a nod to Solzhenistsyn, the line of good and evil isn’t us versus them or a place or an ideology. The line passes through each human heart.

So, whether you’re watching your fourth episode of Westworld in as many hours gorging yourself on potato chips (that’s actually a self-recrimination…) or tempted to, as my students say, “spill the tea” at the proverbial office watering hole or stumble into any of the moral pitfalls that pepper our lives— keep your death in mind, and in the end, live.

Teacher writing about literature, minimalism, food, simplicity, sustainability and education.

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