Earlier today, my wife, Patty, and I went out for lunch, alone, while the kids were in school. We try to do this once a week.
Sometimes during these meals, we talk about important topics, and sometimes we don’t.
Today, after we ordered our meals, Patty, with a serious look on her face, asked me a question, simple, but not easy to answer.
The question was: “What would you do if you knew it was the last day of your life?”
I, being the analytical one, tried at first to explain that if that were the case I would most likely be seriously ill, probably in a hospice, and probably too weak to do much except sleep.
She, although recognizing the question made me a bit uncomfortable, persisted for a serious answer.
I thought about the question for a while. Although the Stoics and others preach the value of Memento Mori, “Remember, you must die,” for many it is hard to go through life with this fact constantly on one’s mind. It is an uncomfortable topic, for sure, though an important one.
Once we enter the world, the one commonality we all share is the fact of our own mortality. There is no other fact of life common to us all. It is true of individuals of all cultures now, in the past, and in the future. The most powerful monarchs of history we read about are now all deceased. Their power and money could not prevent this eventuality.
Memento Mori, although seemingly morbid on first glance, is not a morbid concept.
Instead, it is a reminder that we now have our opportunity to live and we should not, indeed must not, squander this gift of life we have. If we live life with the full understanding that we will die, we will not waste a single moment because we realize how fleeting and precious it really is.
There is no greater tragedy than being on one’s deathbed regretting that during our time on earth we never truly lived.
Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations 2.11, expounding on Memento Mori, said “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
The constant remembrance of our own mortality is, thus, a positive concept that, if practiced, allows us to truly live each day to its fullest because it, in fact, may be our last.
September 11, 2001 was a beautiful day in New York City. I remember the beautiful blue sky, which looked like a painting, and the warm inviting weather. Such weather always puts me into a positive mood. In fact, to do this day on similar days I think to myself “it’s just like 9/11.”
My law school classmate picked me up from my apartment in Staten Island for our 9:00am tax class. He was a little late that day, and I remember telling him as he pulled up that we would be late unless we experienced a no traffic miracle. Our law school was in Tribeca, about a half mile north of the World Trade Center.
As we took the familiar route on the Gowanus Expressway driving towards the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (now named the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel) and sitting in the normal traffic, we noticed smoke coming from Tower One of the World Trade Center. The Gowanus is an elevated highway and during most of the approach you have a clear view of Lower Manhattan.
The smoke was odd. Something was wrong. We remarked that the pilot of a small Cessna probably made a fatal error.
We turned off the cassette tape we were listening to (the Notorious Big, of course), and turned on the radio to learn what was happening. It was before Twitter or smart phones, so information was not as instantaneous as today.
Then my parents, who were vacationing in Niagara Falls called my phone. They were watching events unfold on TV and knew it was a bad situation. Although I was close to the events, we could not decipher the severity of the situation. I explained that I had class and then a job interview in Manhattan, so we were not turning around.
At 9:03am, while sitting in traffic and staring at Lower Manhattan we watched Flight 175 smash into Tower Two.
“Holy Shit,” was all we could say to each other as we realized what was happening.
By this point the Tunnel was closed to traffic, and we were diverted to the streets of Brooklyn. I remember watching a Fire Truck navigating through traffic on the way into the Tunnel to respond. I made eye contact with a young firefighter in the truck. I don’t know if he was one of the casualties, and I never will.
We drove through downtown Brooklyn, and it felt like it was snowing because the papers expelled from Tower 2 upon impact blew across the river into Brooklyn. We could not see either towers fall because our view was blocked by buildings.
We finally made it home hours later since the bridge we needed to use to get home was closed for the entire morning as government officials determined they were not at risk. During this time, we were trying unsuccessfully to call some of our friends who used the train station at the World Trade Center while commuting to school. Thankfully, they were fine, though they had a difficult day trying to get home from Lower Manhattan.
I recount this story because I think about it a lot. If my friend was not late, we would have been right around the World Trade Center at the exact time of the first impact.
It’s a constant reminder of Memento Mori for me. None of those 2,977 people who perished in the attacks that day knew it would mark the violent end of their lives.
They were just trying to earn money to support their families. It was a beautiful late summer day filled with optimism, and I’m sure many were feeling the same way I was.
The answer I gave to my wife this morning to her question was “I would do nothing different than usual.”
This is true.
I try my very best to live each day like it’s my last. Sometimes I am successful and sometimes I am not.
This means I try my best to love, to be a positive influence on those around me, and to not live life in a state of misery, like so many appear to do.
Life is good. We should be focused on the important things and let the annoyances of daily life go.
Life is a gift that is given to us each day to enjoy and make the world around us a little better. This doesn’t have to manifest in great acts. It is the normal every day activities we do that we should view as profoundly special.
This conversation today with my wife is an example of something that, from the outside might not seem exciting, but that I cherish so much. We connected. We discussed deep issues. We looked into each other’s eyes the whole time. It was an expression of our love for each other.
That can be taken from us at any time, and I intend on making the most of each and every moment. Yes, at times life can be hard. Yes, it can be frustrating. There will be struggles and disappointments. They are unavoidable. But, if we follow Marcus Aurelius’ wise counsel, we will remember the fact that we could leave this life at this very moment. It doesn’t always happen to the other guy. Today, it could be our turn. Let that fact guide what we say and think.
If we can all honestly say that if today were the last day of our lives we would do nothing different than usual, I think we are doing life right.
By Chris D.
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