The key to living is in the last place you’ll look.
I know this is probably going to be an edgy topic right now. But I want to talk about death from a Stoic perspective.
So full compassion for people facing the prospect of losing loved-ones right now, through Covid or through whatever rusty scythe Old Death is waving at us right now. Death is a brutal loss to have to come to terms with.
But, in a world of few guarantees, death is definitely one we’re going to have to deal with sooner or later.
And it’s tough when we’re talking about our loved ones, but it’s a particularly challenging exercise to get our minds around the reality of our own mortality.
We’re not geared for it. Our egos want to live forever. We all hold out on the hope that maybe we will be the one human in the history of the world who might live forever.
But we won’t be.
We will die.
This thought can be terrifying. And most of us choose to stick our heads in the sand and ignore it. Like, just pretend that death isn’t even a thing.
But that wasn’t the Stoic way. The Stoics wanted to stay awake to the reality of death – to carry that awareness in every moment.
As Marcus Aurelius said,
“You could leave this life right now… let that determine what you do and say and think.”
This is one of the reasons why they have a reputation for being a ‘grim’ philosophy.
So why did they do it?
I think what happens when you become conscious of death – when you meditate on it consciously, or you have a near-death experience like a car crash – is that you become very grateful for the life you have.
If I told you that you had just five minutes left on earth, I can guarantee you that they will probably be some of the sweetest minutes of your entire life. You would taste the full sweetness of the air, you would feel the warm sun or the cool wind on your skin, you would savour the rich world of emotion and memory that lives in your mind.
You would drink in everything life had to offer you, knowing that the call for last drinks had already gone out.
Nothing snaps you back into the moment like coming face to face with Death’s ugly head.
And so for the Stoics, meditating on death, trying to be consciously alive to our own mortality – that was nothing but a strategy for living fully – for living with gratitude and gusto.
The more you did it, the richer your life would become.
And what I would note here is that this is an idea that pops up all over the world. It pops up again and again.
That says something, doesn’t it?
Like, take this passage I’ve always loved from the Hagakure – A manual for the Samurai in Japan.
The Way of the Samurai is found in death.
Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one's master.
And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the way of the samurai.
It is a hard reality to face. Death is coming.
But if we can face that reality – really face that reality – then that is when we start truly living.