What is the Point? 2 of 4: Memento Mori

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

#Purpose #Happiness #Mindset


“Life is fragile, be kind to yourself and tolerant with others.” Gareth Robinson



This is the second of four articles dedicated to one of my best mates Rich. If you've read the first article on the power of narrative and storytelling, feel free to skip this intro (that's for you TJ 😊).


If you haven’t read the first article, then start here.


People have been asking themselves what the point of life is since the beginning of time, and because I recently lost Rich to suicide, I have been re-examining that question to process his death and find some clarity for myself.


The four articles are:


1. The Power of Narrative and Storytelling


2. Memento mori


3. Developing Your Happiness with Gratitude and Fun


4. Why being insignificant is a good thing (unpublished)



Right now, today, I am not sure there is a point. Or, if there is a point, I am not sure it matters.


What does matter to me, and the purpose of writing this series of articles, is that I share what Rich has taught me from his final lesson, a lesson from an irrational act that was out of character. An act which has brought into sharp focus what is important in life, the best way to live it, and what the actual point is.


The point of life is to make a positive difference — just like Rich did — in people’s lives.


There is no other point, it is as simple as that.


I believe the meaning of life, the point of it all, is to improve yourself and your community, to make a positive difference in the world — no matter how small — because every little bit counts.


I challenge you to find a more worthy point of your existence.


If you want to build an empire, leave a legacy, save the world, then that’s OK too. But be sure the road you're on is making you and your loved ones happy.


Just make sure that your Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) to leave a legacy is not so big, that it’s stopping you from starting. Or worse yet, stopping you from enjoying today. Remember that focusing on the process, and taking small steps, will deliver you big results over time, and as Michelangelo once said:


“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”


So, take the first step to live your best life by doing. Speaking of doing, it is a fundamental part of living a ‘Stoic life’, which brings me to the topic of this second article; ‘memento mori’ the Stoic practice of living each day as if it is your last.


Before I continue, please remember that if you are struggling to talk to someone (it’s good to talk), you have people who care for you and love you - reach out to one of them. And if you need to, contact a healthcare professional in your local community.


“Don’t lose hope because when the sun goes down, the stars come out.” Unknown


IMPORTANT: The information in this article is not a substitute for medical advice, nor is the content intended to be used for diagnosis and treatment. You, or anyone you are concerned about, are encouraged to seek professional advice and treatment from doctors and/or qualified healthcare professionals in specific cases of need. If you, or the person you are concerned about, appear at risk of self-harm or harm to others, please seek immediate professional assistance.



PART TWO: Memento mori “Remember that you have to die.”



When used properly the practice of remembering your mortality is not morbid, it’s the exact opposite.


Memento mori is a powerful tool that pulls you into the present moment, reminding you to be grateful of the small things in life. And when you are feeling stressed and time-poor it can give you that kick up the arse you need to refocus on what is important in your life.


To state the bleeding obvious, living each day as if it’s your last does not mean you quit your job, fly to Ibiza, and blow your lifelong savings on a week-long party. Sure, that sounds like fun, however, post-party all you'll have is a hangover to end all hangovers, no job, and no money.


In this article I’m going to unpack two of my favourite memento mori quotes from Marcus Aurelius* to see what other options, other than the week-long party in Ibiza, worth considering.


The two quotes I'll be discussing are:


You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.


“Live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence.”


*Known as the last of the Good Roman Emperors, Marcus Aurelius reigned from 161 to 180. In between his daily duties as the most powerful man in the world, managing a war or two, dealing with the Antonine Plague that killed over 5 million people, and everything else a Roman Emperor has on his Task List, he wrote what is arguably the most popular piece of Stoic literature ‘Meditations’. According to Britannica: The Meditations are “his reflections in the middle of campaigning and administration. …It shows the strong influence of Stoicism on Marcus and has been held by generations as the thoughts of a Philosopher-King.” If you’re interested in Meditations you can check it out here


The first quote:


You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.


Let's unpack that with an exercise: I want you to spend some time imagining that you only have six months left to live.


Outside of ticking off as many items on your personal bucket list as possible, take some of that precious time you have left to think about how you would behave in those last six months, consider the three words below:

  • Do

  • Say

  • Think

Over the next six months what are you going to do, say and think, so you will be remembered well by those you love?


As you think about this, it might help to write down your thoughts... Grab a bit of paper, journal or notebook and jot down what thoughts come to mind about how you want to do, say, and think over the next six months.


Going about your normal day, in those everyday moments, how are you going to act so that you will be remembered in the way that you want to be remembered?


Think about your loved ones, how will you behave with them? What will you say? What will you do so that they remember you well?


Once you’ve spent a little bit of time with this exercise, I have one more question for you to think about:


If that is how you want to behave with only six months to live, why wouldn’t you want to behave exactly the same way with six years, or even six decades left to live?

The second quote:


“Live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence.”


I love this quote so much that I am thinking I'll get it as my first ever tattoo for my 50th birthday later this year (yup, midlife crisis in full swing!).


Let’s look at why I’m considering inking memento mori on my arm as a permanent reminder of how to stay in the present, be grateful, and live a good life.


The first part of the quote comes as no surprise, memento mori, yup we get it – whilst the odds are in your favour, when you go to bed tonight there is a chance that you will not wake up in the morning. As the more recent version of this saying goes: Remember, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow!


Thinking about today being your last is a super-powerful tool to help you focus on enjoying the present moment, to properly experience those everyday activities and important relationships that we often take for granted.


Here are some common examples of doing exactly what you shouldn’t:

  • You’re rushing from the office to the train and forget to look around you, forgetting completely to actually enjoy the view and life around you.

  • On the way home you catch up for a drink with a friend, and as they are telling you about their weekend, you’re not really listening because you’re waiting to tell them about yours…

  • Or you get home from work and your seven year old starts to explain in great detail (as only a seven year old can) what happened in class today. But you are busy, you have that email deadline to make, so you’re not really listening to what he’s saying.

  • Worse still, after two minutes of listening to the intense Lego adventure he had with his best friend at lunch, you ask him to get on with it, to hurry his story up because you have that email you need to send to the important client. An important client that by the way, will not be a client in five months’ time (she moved roles), and this Christmas - when you are opening presents with your son - you won’t even remember her name.

If you’re a parent with school age kids this may resonate? Don’t feel bad if it does, these are all examples from my own life.


It’s not easy to live in the present, to remind yourself to enjoy and be grateful of those small moments in time.


If you read my first article in this series, you’ll remember that the past and future are not places you want to live in. Sure, you can visit them once and a while, but if you want to live a more stress-free and contented life, you need to try to focus on living in the present.


Don’t set the bar too high though, because even spiritual gurus who have spent years trying to live in the present, fail often. So, don’t be too hard on yourself if you spend a bit of time in the past (just don’t let it define you), or worrying about the future (but don’t let your imagination stress you out too much).


Make sure that you start by focusing on a few small ways that you can start living more in the here and now.


If it helps, know that I fail every day when trying to live in the present moment. And that’s when I remember what Albert Einstein once said:


‘You never fail until you stop trying.”


So, the first part of Marcus’ quote reminds us that we need to focus on experiencing the present in all its glory. That we should be grateful for the little things in life, because truly today could be your last.



Now, let’s unpack the second half of this quote where Marcus is reminding himself not to act in frenzy, be apathetic, or act with pretence.


First, I’ll give a definition of each, and then share some insights on how we can do what Marcus recommends… i.e., do the opposite of living with frenzy, apathy and pretence.


1] Frenzy is a period of uncontrolled excitement or wild behaviour.


Being excited is a good thing, and showing enthusiasm is super-important...


Life should be fun because it’s too short to live a boring life (remember you might not wake up tomorrow!). However, that does not mean that you should lose control, or act like a wild boar at a party. Sure, cut loose a little, have some fun, but don't ever completely lose control or at the end of the night you may just end up in a gutter (trust me, gutters do not make for comfortable bedfellows).


The opposite of frenzy is balance, calm and coolness.


Balance in life is important, I’m not talking about tightrope walking here, let’s look at work-life-balance.


One of the most common regrets of people dying is that they worked too hard (yup, too hard).


In a now famous 2012 blog post by Bonnie Ware titled; ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’ (read by over 8 million people [link]), the second most common regret was: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”


So don’t work so bloody hard! If you think you need to find a bit of balance in your life of course you can reach out to someone like me for some help, or if you want to start on your own, simply Google it! I just did and found a pretty good article on work-life-balance you can check out here.


Of course, one of the best ways to get ‘work-life-balance’, is to do enjoyable work that fulfils you, so that your work doesn’t feel quite so much like ‘work’. I’m not talking about saving the world here, I’m talking about finding a job that aligns with your values, with colleagues that you enjoy being around, in a role that gives you autonomy and learning opportunities. And finally, working for an organisation that, in some way contributes to your community.


Let's move onto calm and coolness...


My recommendation is that if you want to be calmer and cooler, then learn how to meditate and practise daily mindfulness, it is that simple.


How do I know? Because, having spent the last four years studying the daily habits of exceptional people and world class performers (www.thriverapp.com), the one habit that they have most in common is meditation.


If you are not meditating already then you should, it's that simple. If you don’t know where to start, there are plenty of free meditation apps available. Just get on the App Store or Google Play, three of the most popular with pretty decent free versions right now are; Insight Timer, Smiling Mind, and Calm.


If you don’t want to start with an app, then this is a great ‘how to start’ article on meditation, including the benefits.



2] Apathy means to have a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern.


Everybody experiences apathy from time to time (no ones perfect). Sometimes, I feel unmotivated or uninterested in my daily activities, however, according to experts this is completely normal, and it is called 'situational apathy'.


Just because situational apathy is common for most of us, that doesn’t mean that you should let it bubble away in the background, or worse slowly grow over time….


The good news is that, just as Marcus Aurelius was doing with his quote, one of the simplest ways to reduce your apathy - increasing your motivation and empathy - is by creating small daily reminders for yourself.


TIP: Using visual cues often work best here, whether it’s a Post-It note, journal entry, picture, or quote, use whatever verbal cue works for you.


The opposite of apathy is feeling motivated and showing empathy.


Motivation is tricky and sometimes unreliable, in part because everyone is different, so what motivates you may not motivate me.


From the research I’ve read, the majority of the experts tell us that intrinsic motivators (autonomy, mastery, meaning, purpose, etc.) are more effective at motivating someone rather than extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators are rewards or punishments we expect to receive following a particular action or behaviour (think carrot and stick).


I’m not going to dig deep on motivation today. However, if you want some tips, Morgan McKinley has a nice short article covering the five key motivators in the workplace. I’ve listed them below, and if you’re interested you can check the article out here.

  1. Provide meaningful and challenging work (they’re talking purpose and ‘flow’)

  2. Improve employees’ lives (think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs)

  3. Recognition (most of us want a bit of recognition sometimes)

  4. Culture (as Peter Drucker once said; “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”)

  5. Compensation and benefits (show me the money honey)

TIP: My suggestion to you, if you’re struggling to find some motivation, is to review these key motivators as if you were your own employee… How would you rate yourself from an employee satisfaction point of view?


Let’s move onto empathy:


Empathy is your ability to experience the feelings of other people, to understand their point of view, even when you don’t agree with them.


Empathy is different from sympathy, which involves an expression of sorrow or regret for another person, empathy is harder to express and deeper than sympathy. If you want a great take on empathy, here is a fantastic 3-min animated video clip that Brené Brown has put together.


Pretty much everyone can improve their empathy, it is also one of the most sought after leadership traits, and in my opinion all great leaders have a big 'empathy muscle’.


So, how can you make yours stronger?


TIPS:

  • Build your self-awareness (that is a whole article in itself!), so that you begin to recognise your biases, filters, and triggers

  • Be curious and open by asking questions, starting conversations with strangers, and not just hanging out with people like you. If you have a diverse network of friends and associates, then you’ll be much better at understanding other people’s point of view.

  • Practice active listening by being present, asking questions, and then importantly listening properly to the answers!

  • Volunteer - I am a massive fan of volunteering. Often as a volunteer you put yourself in a position where you can easily practise the first three tips above

  • Use empathetic and assertive language rather than aggressive, passive, or passive aggressive language. A few examples of empathetic phrases are; “I can imagine how you feel.” And “I can see why that upset you.”



3] Pretence is an attempt to make a falsehood appear true. Definitions of pretence from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

  • A claim made or implied, especially one not supported by fact

  • Mere ostentation: pretentiousness confuses dignity with pomposity and pretence

  • An inadequate or insincere attempt to attain a certain condition or quality

  • In ‘without pretence’, Marcus is reminding himself to do the right thing, to be honest, and speak the truth.

The opposite of pretence is truth, honesty, and openness. Here is another great quote of Marcus’ on this subject: “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honoured. Dying… or busy with other assignments.” It should be simple right? Although, as Fred (Mister) Roger's says simple is not always easy: “Honesty is often very hard. The truth is often painful. But the freedom it can bring is worth the trying.” What to say about being honest? Other than it truly is the best policy. So, perhaps I’ll finish off by sharing a few tips on how to be more honest with yourself. Because don't forget the importance of starting with yourself, as I said in the first article in this series; if you don’t look after yourself first, you cannot look after others.

  • Build your self-awareness by doing any number of psychometric, personality, or behavioural style assessments. There are plenty of options online, some of the more popular that I’d recommend are; DISC, Myers Briggs, VIA, and Clifton Strength finder. If you want my opinion on any of these assessments feel free to ask (gareth@mindhabit.com.au)

  • Go deeper by completing a program like Thriverapp’s ‘Find Your Why’ Foundation Course (launching mid-2021, so if you’re interested in getting on the pre-launch list reach out to me)

  • Start meditating, practicing mindfulness, or simply take a 5-min break every day and go outside to ‘smell the roses’

  • That leads me to practicing gratitude in some form or another (using mantras, quotes, visual cues, a gratitude journal, volunteering, etc.). FYI, I'll be doing deep into gratitude in the fourth article of this series.

  • Recognise that you are not perfect, that you are not the ‘smartest guy in the room’. Learn to accept that sometimes you will get it wrong, and that is completely OK.

  • An important part of being honest with yourself, accepting that you are not perfect, is forgiveness, you need to forgive yourself for your mistakes, don’t let them define you, instead learn from them and then move on

Jeez, these articles don't seem to be getting smaller... However, thankfully for you this one is pretty much finished! And thankfully for me, mostly I’m writing them for myself so if you've got this far, that’s great, but if you haven’t, that’s OK too. 😊 I’m signing off for now, so along with me, please keep on reminding yourself to live today as if it you’re your last (because it just might be!). Cheers, Gareth.

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