Memento Mori: The Uncomfortable Truth

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If you’ve ever seen Game of Thrones, you must be familiar with the phrase Valar Morghulis, popularised by the faceless men of Braavos. While it is just a phrase in a fictional language, Valar Morghulis has a Latin equivalent – Memento Mori – which is the basis of my writing today.

The phrase memento mori translates to Remember that you must die. While not intended as a dark reminder of man’s mortality, Memento mori immediately brings us face to face with the inevitability of death, a truth most people are not comfortable thinking about.

Perhaps it is because people believe talking about death brings death closer. Perhaps, it is because many are afraid of dying before they have a chance at living. Perhaps, it is some other superstitious belief. Whatever the reason, reminding people they are going to die makes most people uncomfortable.

Yet, memento mori is more than that. It is a reminder to stop agonising over the past and seize the future. It is a reminder to stop procrastinating when tomorrow is not guaranteed. Memento mori is a reminder to be thankful and maximise every moment so that you have no regrets in the face of death.

The Origins of Memento Mori

Though the phrase has gained an unhealthy cult following among the stoics, the phrase Memento Mori has its origins in the Ancient Roman empire. 

After successful conquests, Roman generals would parade the street in a chariot, cheered on by onlookers. Such treatment, it was expected, would make the hero feel like a god. And for this, the Romans had a plan.

Right there in the chariot accompanying the hero was a person whose sole job was to whisper in the conqueror’s ear: ‘Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!’, meaning ‘Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember that you must die!’

The goal was to help the hero remember his mortality so that he doesn’t begin to think of himself to be above those that fell by his hand.

The Paradox of Time

Time is finite. We all know we won’t be here forever. We don’t acknowledge this fact, but we know it deep down. What is interesting is that we often do not relate with time as those aware of its value. And that there is the paradox of time. That we are aware of its incredible value but by an act of our will constantly live in a way that shows utter disregard for that awareness.

Time is finite, but we often do not acknowledge this until it’s late. You will not be in school forever. You will not stay with your parents forever. You’ll not live forever in this world. Phrases like Valar Morghulis or Memento Mori are helpful because they help us create a visceral awareness of time, so we can rethink our priorities and more efficiently use time.

While delivering his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs captured the sentiment perfectly.

Jobs said, “Almost everything…just falls away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important…”

Memento mori may well be an inconvenient truth, but it is incontrovertible. Everyone is going to die at some point and what will matter when that day comes is how you’ve used the time you had.

A Moment of Truth

I understand how uncomfortable reading this may have made you feel. I felt the same way writing this. However, I’ll like you to do three things for me before you go.

  • Pause to reflect on the implications of the phrase for you.
  • Ask yourself what you can do differently. Then get on with doing them. 
  • Make a list of the things you’ll never regret doing. Put it where you’ll keep seeing it. Make sure that you spend time daily doing those things.

Feel free to shoot me an email at definitions.adebajo@gmail.com or tweet at me @femidebargio about how you feel about this post.

Memento mori!

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