Memento mori is the Latin phrase that reflects work by Plato, the Stoics, and medieval Christian scholars. ‘Remember death’ is the literal translation, and as morbid as it sounds the meaning and intent is much more upbeat – to remind us to live. We only get one shot at life, and sometime soon it’ll all be over, so let’s really make the most of it, and relish the joy and beauty of it all.
We are reminded of the fragility and finite nature of life every time we turn on the television and the news tells of war, murder, bigotry, greed, famine and disease. Indeed our whole human system seem set up not to make the most of – and to celebrate – life, but to squash every ounce of joy and love out of it as is humanly possible. Our politicians, themselves symptoms of a broken world that, in the wise words of Burt Bacharach, needs love (no not just for some, but for everyone), seem determined to commodify happiness. They give it a price and save it for their wealthy friends while the rest of us face austerity, the blunt end of capitalism, and the negative effects of right-wing divisionism.
As you pass through the city, you find people spending each day sitting row after row at screens, tapping away at keyboards like battery chickens pecking at feeding troughs. They lay eggs for their employers so that two-days a week they can get drunk, watch TV and, if they’re lucky enough, scrape enough together to pay the bills and their subscription to the sports channel.
We have become intensively farmed. Categorised and cloned, we dress the same, behave the same, think the same. And anyone who doesn’t is considered eccentric, trouble, and either laughed at, avoided, medicated or tasered and locked up.
When my father lay unconscious in hospital, shortly before he died, one of his former colleagues came to visit. Clearly upset, he said to me “you’ve got the make the most of everyday.” It wasn’t long after this I quit my job and embarked on a freelance career.
Some years later, someone very close to me was diagnosed breast cancer. It was a scary time, but thankfully after many months of the most brutal treatment which, at times, seemed worse than death, she went into remission. That same year I went to the funerals of three of my friends, all taken far too soon. As I watched through my tears as a mechanical digger dropped earth on to one friend’s coffin – not the most elegant send-off – again I was reminded that we have only so much time, yet there is so much beauty out there that needs experiencing.
Fast forward another couple of years, and I was working in the call centre at a charity, and I’d just spent an hour on the phone talking to a woman with terminal cancer. She was getting ready for her daughter’s wedding, and despite the constant pain this filled her with immense joy. A devout Christian, she found great comfort in her faith, and while I’m not religious myself I was glad that she was able to find something that allowed her to make sense of this bizarre and wonderful world. We chatted for a while about how, despite life’s hardships, we are surrounded by so much beauty, which fills our hearts with so much wonder, that it’s not surprising that we yearn to find meaning in it all.
It wasn’t the easiest of phone calls, and afterwards I took a break. In the canteen a colleague thrust a card into my hand. On it were printed the words ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo’. It’s a chant recited by followers of the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonen, a Japanese priest who lived in the thirteenth century. Loosely translated it means ‘Glory to the Sutra of the Lotus’. The Lotus Sutra represents fifty years of the Gautama Buddha’s teachings, and is considered to be a representation of the infinite laws of the universe.
I keep the card in my wallet.
Throughout my years I’ve constantly been reminded of two things; The delicate nature of life, and the unending wonder of the infinite universe that we live in. But rather than spend our lives exploring and enjoying it, we instead align ourselves with a system of values that exists to take the lustre off it all.
The purpose of life is not to get fat sitting in front of the television. It’s not to get angry on twitter. It’s not to level our bigotry at whichever group the newspapers or politicians wish to demonise next. It’s not to divide. It’s not to measure our failures by the successes of others. It’s not to allow others to tell us how to live, who to hate, what to think, how to dress, who to be.
It’s not to go shopping.
The purpose of life is to love. To share. To unify. To build. To celebrate our unique weirdness. To find our own way. To be a bit eccentric. To wear the ridiculous hat. To screw what anyone thinks. To paint. To help. To reach out a hand. To breathe it all in, and to breath it all out. To whistle your own tune, and to be.
To paraphrase Alan Watts: Life is not a journey where we spend our lives trying to get to a destination. It’s a musical thing, and we are supposed to sing and dance while the music is being played.
My daughter is six months old, sleeping in my arms as I type this, one-handed. I don’t want her to wait until she’s forty and faced with some sort of midlife existential crisis, like I did, before she realises that this life is hers. It’s her music, and I want her to dance free, and spin and twirl through meadows of wildflowers and forest of bluebells. I want her to skip and hop through life anyway she pleases.
We all can. We all should. It’s not for anyone to tell us which steps to take and to which tune. We need to make up our jig.
Every day we are reminded of death. Literal signs telling us that we should be living, really living, that we should dance in the streets, paint, create, love and soak up the sunshine. And we should do it holding the hands of our brothers and sisters from the house next door, the next town, the next nation, no matter who they are, what they worship, who they love, what language they speak or what colour they are.
We get one go at this. We must remember to live.