Stoic Coffee Break
201 - You May Leave This Life at Any Moment
August 30, 2021
“You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think.” — Marcus Aurelius Do you think about death? Are you afraid of death? Do you take the time to think about what the world will be like when you are no longer here? Today I want to talk about why death is so important, and how when we avoid thinking about death, we are missing out on one of the best tools to live a fulfilling life.
“You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think.”

— Marcus Aurelius

Do you think about death? Are you afraid of death? Do you take the time to think about what the world will be like when you are no longer here? Today I want to talk about why death is so important, and how when we avoid thinking about death, we are missing out on one of the best tools to live a fulfilling life.


“Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law humankind has that is free of all discrimination.” 

—Seneca


Memento Mori

The concept of Memento Mori, to remember or think of death, is important in stoicism. Because stoicism is about facing the challenges of life head on, to ignore death is to ignore one of the most fundamental truths of life: that one day, each of us will die. In fact, one thing that every person in this world has in common is that they too will die. 

Most of us have a fear of death. This is not a bad thing. If we are to survive in this world, then having a healthy fear of death is one thing that helps us avoid things that are hazardous to us. But at some point, each of us has to face up to our own mortality, and the sooner that we can do that, I think the more rich your life can be. 


“Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?” 

—Marcus Aurelius


Why are we afraid to die?

There are many reasons to be afraid of death, but until you know what you fear, you’ll never be able to overcome that fear. Maybe you’re afraid of all the things you’ll miss in life when you die. If I were to die today, I’d miss the experience of my kids growing into adults. I’d miss watching them discover the world, and create the kind of lives that they want to live. I’d miss kitchen discussions about life and dad jokes and random TikTok videos.

Maybe you are afraid of the unknown, that you don’t know know what happens after we die. Maybe you are afraid that there is nothing after this life. I can understand fear, but if we consider things rationally, if there is nothing after this life, then you will not be aware of it. If there is something after we die, then that will be another adventure for us.

There are many more reasons why we fear death, but until we face those reasons, we will also be afraid of living. 


“Let each thing you would do, say, or intend, be like that of a dying person.” 

—Marcus Aurelius


What is Important?

The main reason that the stoics wanted to make sure that we remember death, is that it death is a great clarifier. It is a great filter for the things that are important and the things that aren’t. If we can pause from time to time and ask ourselves if we died right now, would this be something we’d be okay with doing with our last moments on earth? And I don’t mean that it has to be something crazy like skydiving, but it can help us change our perspective about what is important, and take action on what we have control over. 

For example, say that you’re having a heated argument with someone you care about. If you died right then, would you want that to be the last thing that you do? Would you want them to have that as the last memory of you? Using the filter of Memento Mori, can help you make a different and more productive choices, and ones that you will be much happier with.


“Choose to die well while you can; wait too long, and it might become impossible to do so. “

—Gaius Musonius Rufus


Die Well

The first time I read that quote, I didn’t really understand what Rufus meant. I’ve never seen those stoics as people that were out to die, so how would you die well? So, I’ve been reading an interesting book called The Way and the Power by Fredrick J. Lovret. It’s about Japanese swordsmanship, and to be honest, it’s a challenging and fascinating book. Having grown up around violence, I’ve been on the side of non-violence, and the book is all about samurai, their dedication to the art of war, and living and dying by the sword. Every samurai understood that by choosing the way of the sword, they were also choosing their death by the sword. For them, death was a fact of life and they relished they would die in glory, facing death head on and the only terrible death was one without honor, such as cowardice or treachery. 

Each time they went into battle, they had a mental exercise of imagining they were already dead. They had already accepted their death so they would fight ferociously because they were not there to protect their lives, but to give their lives and advance the goal they had pledged themselves to. If they came out of the battle alive, then it was as if they had been reborn, and they had another chance to fight for the cause they pledged their lives to. If they died, then it was a good death, because they fought for a cause they believed in, and they had fought with honor.


“It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.” 

—Marcus Aurelius


Quality Over Quantity

For me, the biggest reason we should remember death is so that we can use it as a reminder to focus on the quality of life, not the quantity. Since you never know when you’re going to die, focus on making good use of the time you have. Focus on the things that are important to you, and let go of the things that don’t improve the quality of your life.  

I think that when you overcome your fear of death, you also overcome your fear of living. Fear drives how much of your life. How many things to you do, or keep doing because you’re afraid? How many times have you stayed in a relationship or a continued working at a job because you were afraid? People who have had near-death experiences often lose their fear of death. When they have already faced their ultimate fear, they recognize that they have a second chance, and they do their best to take full advantage of it. They get rid of the things in life that don’t work for them. They appreciate every moment they have, and step up and own their choices and take actions to create the life that they want.  

We can apply this in all kinds of areas of life. Maybe you’re spending a lot of time and energy focusing on material possessions that take up time and resources, but bring little joy to your life. You might have lots of stuff, but does it serve you in living the life you want? Clearing out the unnecessary things in your life can free up time and energy to focus on the important things.

For relationships, there are many times that we will put a lot of time and energy into relationships that are ultimately unsatisfying or even damaging. We may feel like we don’t want to walk away because we have put in that time and energy. We may also feel obligated with family members that we have to put up with their poor behavior. But if we’re clear about the kind of life that we want, we control the things that we can. We put up clear boundaries or end those relationships that damage us. Life is too short to waste on people that will not respect us and our boundaries.

We can apply these ideas to our careers or the organizations that we work for. Working a job that you hate or at a company that holds ideals counter to your own can really be a constant drain on your mental health. Just like setting good boundaries or removing damaging relationships, we can do the same things with our careers and work environments. 


Conclusion

When you dedicate time to removing your fear of death, which for many is their greatest fear, then you are more willing to live your life fearlessly. You’ll take those risks. You’ll pursue the goals you want. You’ll step up and take control of the things you can. You’ll more easily let go of the things you can’t. You will be governed by your will, your choices, not by fear.

Don’t worry about how to live longer- worry about how to live better.

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