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From Vol. 1, Issue 9, September 2019

Beyond dying: Living urgently


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The fear of dying 

Reflecting on one’s own death and the death of others, in particular those who are dear to us, is something that many people find depressing. This is one subject that we don’t want to think about. The sheer idea that we might not exist any more can fill us with anxiety, so we’d rather block the idea altogether. 

Many things don’t really matter 

Yet this is one of the Stoic practices that I find most refreshing. It projects me to a time when certain things won’t matter anymore. It helps me make important decisions, let go of things that are not worth fighting for, and focus my time and energy on those that are worth fighting for. 

Postponing life 

As long as I can remember, at least going back to my teenage years, when I heard people say. “I’ll do this when I’m retired/when I’m forty/when I have kids/when the kids have left home/when I have enough money,” I always asked myself “Why? There is no time, you can’t not live the life you want to live, hoping that when this or that happens, things will be possible!” I remember feeling a sense of urgency—the urgency of living now. For some time I attributed this to teenage impatience, but now I feel this is a real piece of wisdom. 

The urgency of living 

This is why I love Marcus Aurelius’ words: 

So we need to hurry. Not just because we move closer to death but also because our understanding —our grasp of the world—may be gone before we get there. 

M. Aurelius Meditations, 3.1 (Tr. G. Hays) 

If I were to die tomorrow, would I be happy with my life as it is? Is there anything I would do differently? Things I would tell people? These questions have always been good guides. Thinking about my own death helps me check that the life I am living is really the one I want to live, that my idea of the person I want to be fits with who I am on a daily basis. Thinking about the death of those close to me helps me make sure that the relationships I have are right. 

The real meaning of memento mori 

Memento mori doesn’t mean we need to hurry to do everything that crosses our mind. It doesn’t exclude planning for the future or developing patience to fulfil our goals. On the contrary, it helps focus on things that are truly important to us and that help us realise who we are, brushing aside our fears. I had my first child at 29, and was filled with joy and anxiety at the same time, thinking I would be tied down and have to abandon things that were important to me. But because “we need to hurry,” instead I quit a comfortable job that wasn’t entirely fulfilling (although it brought financial security) and took the family to India, where I dreamt of living and working. With a baby, my backpacking days were over, and I planned things more than I would have done at the age of 20, but to this day, the journey remains one of my most life-transforming experiences. The real thing for which we need to hurry is cherishing the life we’ve got. 

Flora Bernard is the co-founder of the Paris-based philosophy agency, Thae, in 2013. Flora now works to help organisations give meaning to what they do.