A “Memento Mori” by Frans van Everbroeck, oil on canvas, painted between 1654 and 1672.

MEMENTO MORI

PHILOSOPHER JOHN MARTIN FISCHER HAS BEEN THINKING ABOUT DEATH, AND IT'S MADE HIM A HAPPIER PERSON.

By John Martin Fischer

John Martin Fischer

John Martin Fischer is a distinguished professor of philosophy at UCR. His main research interests lie in free will, moral responsibility, and both metaphysical and ethical issues pertaining to life and death. His most recent book, “Death, Immortality, and Meaning in Life,” was published in 2019 by Oxford University Press. Fischer was recently named one of the top philosophers in the world today by the website Academic Influence.

These days, we are all bombarded with bad, even apocalyptic, news — droughts, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, global climate change, the pandemic, and so forth. For a long time, I’ve reflected about the human desire for greater longevity, but in these times, I’ve been wondering what it would be like to embrace my imminent demise — to live each day as if it were my last. How would that change the quality of my life? Could it even help me to be more fully in the present moment — to “be here now”?

The view that each of us should live every day as if it were our last was held by the Stoic philosophers Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. This was part of their overall philosophy of death, which holds it is not something to fear. They exhorted us to become familiar with death and think about it every day in ways that get us used to its prospect and even make us comfortable with it. Death would not then be such a big deal. Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Perfection of character is this: To live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretense.”

Certain Buddhist meditative practices embody a similar idea. They involve picturing one’s own death — the state of being dead. One is to “see” oneself as moldering in the earth, or surrounded by human bones, and so forth. If one meditates in this way every day, death becomes less exotic, more commonplace, and less scary. The Buddhist notion of “maranasati” is mindfulness of death or death awareness. The Buddhist view of what follows from such awareness is slightly different from that of the Stoics. Whereas the Stoics aim for serenity and lack of “frenzy,” the Buddhists feel death awareness will lead to a sense of urgency. Perhaps one could say it is “urgency without frenzy.” The desired familiarity with death is akin to the Stoics’ notion of the imminence of death; in both traditions, death is right around the corner.

Much of the humor about death has a similar function of familiarizing us with it. Consider this bit from George Carlin: “Dying should be fun … After all, when you die you’re going to find out where you go … I think when you die your soul goes to a garage in Buffalo.” Jokes about death such as this often have at their core a treatment or conception of being dead as if it were just like being alive. They are amusing — when they are — because of this inappropriate conceptualization of being dead as not alien or that different from life. If it comes tomorrow, it is like the visit of an old friend — with a key to your house!

All of this might seem misguided. How can it be psychologically comforting to live each day as if it were your last? You have a choice: You can walk on a lovely inland trail, or you can walk right on the edge of the cliff. The advice, “Always take the trail on the edge of the cliff,” is not sound. You would always be anxious — literally and metaphorically on edge.

Living every day with conscious thoughts of imminent death, even picturing oneself as dead — perhaps surrounded by fleshless bones and skeletons, as in some Buddhist meditations — would be overwhelmingly depressing. Having an imminent death “in your mind in all that you do or say or think,” as Marcus Aurelius exhorts us to do, is not psychologically healthy. This exhortation and death-focused practices, however, have exhibited considerable staying power in multiple traditions. It would be unfair to dismiss them abruptly. Instead, I wish to offer an alternative to a literal construal of them and explore a line of thought that points to a deep and helpful truth, hidden and subtle as it may be.

We often live hoping for a transformative change in our lives, making us happier or less sad, and giving us new meaning. It is natural to engage in “if only X” thinking, where “X” is some future state of affairs in which we live much better. Most of us have these thoughts to some extent, but some of us are plagued by them: “If only I acquire more money,” “If only I were to live by the beach,” “If only I were married,” and so forth. You can think of “X” as just about anything; human preoccupations and hopes for future transformations take indefinitely many forms.

The problem is that “if only X” thinking can easily slide into “only if X” thinking, according to which I can’t be happy unless I get more money, I live in Santa Barbara, I am married, and so forth. Thinking this way makes people unhappy. It saps the joy out of life. We can interpret the Stoic/Buddhist encouragement to live every day as if it were our last as exhorting us to cut down, or eliminate, “if only X” thinking. We should act as if there is no possibility at all of “X” in the future. When we cut out this sort of thinking, we can focus on what we already have and have accomplished. Ideally, this would lead to a kind of serenity — a lack of frenzy, or a peace with one’s life as one has led it so far. A focus on today, rather than tomorrow, does not guarantee that I will be at peace with my life, but this is the goal. The insight of the ancient exhortation is that not engaging in “if only X” thinking can be helpful in reaching it.

Does forswearing “if only X” thinking imply total passivity and renouncing all projects and hopes? No. One can still be engaged in projects for the future, and have hopes for it, without thinking one’s life will not have been worthwhile or “complete” unless the projects come to fruition or the hopes are fulfilled. Living in the now does not entail a refusal to care about the future, only a refusal to condition happiness and meaning on it. A young person or anyone in the prime of their life can certainly abide by the norm, interpreted as I’ve suggested. If every day I seek to reorient myself — my self-awareness — away from “if only X” thinking and toward seeking to achieve peace with life thus far, over time I can become considerably happier, or at least less troubled. When the day of my death actually comes, I’ll be less likely to feel cheated.  This is the deep insight — the secret doctrine — of the Stoics and Buddhists.


Header Image:  “Memento Mori” by Frans van Everbroeck, oil on canvas, painted between 1654 and 1672.

Play Icon for "Near-Death Experiences: A New Experience"

CLICK HERE TO WATCH An expert on near-death experiences, Fischer’s videos on the subject are a huge hit on UCR’s YouTube channel. His five videos have racked up roughly 3.9 million total views, with viewers having watched more than 1.6 million minutes. His most popular video, a 2019 lecture called “Near-Death Experiences: A New Interpretation,” has more than 2.4 million views and averages about 1,000 views a day.