My Lessons from Memento Mori

I was introduced to the concept of Memento Mori by the author Ryan Holiday. He has written several books on Stoicism with both Amor Fati (love of one’s fate) and Memento Mori (remember you must die) as center pieces. I am writing this in June of 2021 and the pandemic that has defined everyone’s life for the last 15 months seems to be waning ever so slowly. The new normal is left in its wake and the awkward feeling of going unmasked into Target and hoping everyone believes that you have been vaccinated. I am taking tentative steps out of quarantine hibernation and taking steps back into life.

We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it. – Seneca

I do not have a terminal illness or a very risky job. I do not jump out airplanes or ride fast motorcycles. I live a relatively risk-free life, but I must remember that I must die. Regardless of how careful I am in the way I live, that day is coming for me, for you, for my family, for my dog, my boyfriend, my best friends. Memento Mori.

My lessons from Memento Mori:

Be here now. I can get completely consumed by busyness. I can get lost in regret or planning for tomorrow or next year or rumination over conversations and disputes lost. All of this takes me out of the current moment. My dog is trying to get my attention. The coffee tastes great. The perfume of the Magnolia tree. The hummingbird that FINALLY found my feeder. The leaves on the tree that seem to be waving to me. As written by Sam Guzman, “Time is a precious resource. A moment, once possessed, can never be recaptured. Moreover, what we do with our time will last for eternity.” I try to not skim through life but to use my senses to appreciate what is available right now. To feel my big toe, to let go of the tension in my shoulders, to pay attention to what is in the room and outside my window. Do not rush it. Feel it. Be here now.

Lean into fear. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Do the thing we fear, and death of fear is certain.” I recently did something I have been very afraid to do and walked across the Mile High Swinging Bridge in North Carolina. I have traveled overseas by myself. I have spoken to an audience of 200 people. I have escaped flood waters. I have terminated an employee I was terrified of. I have written about giving up alcohol. Each experience adds to my self-reliance, my confidence and it helps me face the next obstacle. I have, especially when I was a child, tried to avoid fear;  to cower and pray for it to pass. Now I see it as an opportunity to try something new on; to try and be curious and open. To take it as it comes. And to, sometimes, seek it out. When I am reminded that I must die, I lean into fear.

Make an impact. It took me some forty years to finally figure out my passion. I love when through coaching or facilitation or teaching, I can create insight. The light bulb moment when someone stops to think, eyes looking up towards the ceiling and suddenly they have attained realization. “I need to sign up for a marathon.” “I’m going to write a book.” “I’m going to ask her to marry me.” “I need a new career.” “I’m going to start walking every morning.” I have no idea how it will work out. Most clients or students I will know for months, maybe a year or two. Some are just one meeting. There is no telling if their path is changed by their insight from a coaching session in 2016. I took a StengthsFinder coaching course about three years ago and coached several of my classmates. I connected with many of them on Facebook. I received a message from a Japanese classmate two years after the class thanking me for my coaching and what an impact it had on her life. I teach the SHRM certification class at Duke University. I am so gratified when one of my students passes the certification class and they write in a group class email “THANK YOU, CATHY!” I have had an impact on someone’s life. Someone’s path is better because of me. 

I lost a dear friend to cancer at the beginning of the year. She worked on a Monday. She died on Wednesday. I wonder if she knew. Would she have done it any other way? I cannot walk her path, but I can walk mine. I must remember that I must die. Memento Mori.

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