Memento Mori & The Limit-Embracing Life

published26 days ago
2 min read

According to ancient writings of Tertullian going back to the second century, victorious war generals in ancient Rome had a very particular and interesting custom.

Upon returning from a successful military campaign, the general would be hailed a war hero, and a victory parade would be led through the city in their honor.

All hail the conquering hero.

But they would also have someone right by their side throughout the whole procession whose only job was to whisper in their ear, “Respice post te. Hominem te memento.” The English translation is “Look after you until the time of your death and remember that you’re only a man.”

Over time, this has been shortened to “memento mori,” or “remember you’re going to die someday.”

While thinking about your inevitable death may be uncomfortable to some, I actually think it helps provide the necessary perspective required to make the most of the time we have.

The Bible says it this way in James 4:14:

“You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (ESV)

Oliver Burkeman talks about this a lot in his book Four Thousand Weeks. I love this book because it brings a much-needed contrarian perspective to all the “do more, be better” messaging in the personal productivity space.

Instead of encouraging us to try to squeeze in one more thing, he encourages us to recognize that we can’t do it all and to stop beating ourselves up for failing when we try.

Just like the victorious Roman war general, we all have our limits.

But you don’t need to have someone follow you around whispering in your ear in order to remind yourself of this. One of the ways I like to do this is to use a Life Progress Bar in my Daily Note template in Obsidian.

The code uses my birthday and calculates the percentage of my life that has already passed based on a number in the code representing a normal 80-year lifespan.

If you’re interested in doing the same thing, I walk through how to set all this up in this week’s YouTube video:

video preview

You don’t have to use Obsidian to value the remaining time you’ve been given. In fact, the first time I came across this idea was in the Your Life in Weeks calendar from Tim Urban.

Regardless of the tools you use, the question for all of us is the same: How are you spending your life?

In the previously mentioned Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman shares 5 clarifying questions that can help you gain needed perspective and make the most of your finite time:

  1. Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
  2. Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?
  3. In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?
  4. In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
  5. How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?

Are you making the most of your precious time? Or could you be a little more intentional with how you spend it?

Remember, no matter where you are in your life timeline, it’s never too late to make a positive turn.

— Mike

P.S. If you’d like to download a mind map of my personal book notes for Four Thousand Weeks, click here.

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