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Memento Mori

Memento mori, or also memento mortis, “remember death”, is the Latin medieval designation of the theory and practice of the reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.

I am haunted by the idea of time passing by unused. The idea that I could look back on a period of my life and remember nothing significant about it terrifies me.

I know a self-made millionaire who was homeless at one point in his life. I saw a guy finish BUD/S Hell Week with a broken leg. Many of the most successful businesses in America started with less than 10,000 dollars in capital. Nike was once nothing more than some guy selling shoes out of the back of his car. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, lived in an empty incinerator for several months.

While traveling overseas, I met numerous people who sold successful businesses or walked away from lucrative jobs and everything else they owned in order to leave behind a life that had all the accoutrements but just didn’t make them happy. They started anew in places like Kenya, New Zealand and Costa Rica and wake up every day to a fulfilling life.

I had the privilege of getting to know a man who once owned a successful small business in Colombia but knew that his future there was eventually limited. Along with a friend, he decided to go to the United States. By walking. Along the way, he was robbed of everything he owned and left to die with nothing but his underwear in the desert in Southern Mexico. His friend was cut in half by a freight train. When he finally made his way to the states, he got caught. When the Border Patrol guy asked him why he was sitting quietly in his cell and not making a ruckus like everyone else, he replied that it was all only a game.

“You won this time, my friend. Maybe next time, I win.”

Several months later he had made his way back. This time he won. He worked odd jobs in the states until he could teach himself English and join the military. He is now a legal citizen and a highly respected member of an elite American Special Operations Force.

The point is that it doesn’t matter where you start or how hard you get hit along the way. The only limitations we put on our lives are self-imposed. If you fail, perhaps it was chance, bad luck, or a group of bandidos in the Mexican desert, but whether or not you get back up and keep going is entirely up to you. Any failure is temporary as long as your heart is beating. Ultimately, your happiness and success in life are entirely in your hands.

Everyone has their little story. People like to say things like “Well, you don’t know what I’ve been through…”

You know what? It doesn’t matter.

Why is it so rare to hear “You know what I’m willing to go through to get what I want?”

Every breath you freely draw is another chance to write a chapter in the book of your life. Whatever hardship you’ve faced, I promise you that someone out there has been through something worse and made it to where they wanted to be anyway.

I know where I want to be in life. I know that the only thing that can keep me from getting there is my own weakness. My own timidity, hesitation or complacency.

I know that the time will pass whether I make use of it or not.

Since I was about eighteen years old I have been maintaining a tally on this piece of paper. It’s 52 blocks wide and 80 blocks tall. On the top left corner is my birthdate, and on the bottom right is the same date, 80 years later. Every week I mark off a block.

Memento-mori

I don’t write anything or make any kind of notes. I just black it out. The only thing left is the memories I have of that week and reality of how it has affected my life. In the end, the only things any of us have are our actions and our memories.

Doing this keeps my life in perspective. Each time I fill in a block I briefly consider what I did with that week. Sometimes I do so with a feeling of satisfaction. I want mine to be a life well lived. Other times I look back and realize that I frittered away most of my time on things that didn’t really further my life, didn’t make for any remarkable experiences, and didn’t really make me happy.

I don’t think that it would be possible to maintain a list like this and work in a cubicle for twenty years. Or even twenty months. Imagine that: 80 blocks filled in with no memories other than a gray wall and the occasional lunch at Applebees.

In fact, most people probably wouldn’t want to do something like this at all. It would be too uncomfortable. Self awareness is a pain in the ass when there are so many entertaining reality shows on cable. And excuses are easy. You probably get used to the blinders after a while and eventually don’t even know what you’re missing.

This weekend I filled in the 25th row on my sheet. The last block in a row always leads me to do some self-assessing. Am I happy with what I’ve been doing with my life? Have I been wasting time? Why? Where could I be right now if I hadn’t? What will I do to make sure that one year or five years from when I fill in the last block on another row I can look back with nothing but satisfaction and happiness? Do I know exactly where I want to be at that point?

Look back on your life. The past week, the past year, whatever. How would you answer these questions? More importantly, how do you want to answer them in the future, and what are you going to do about that?

by Craig Weller