“What do we say to the god of death? Not today!”
- The Dance Master, Game of Thrones
Want to live forever?
The Stoics and a number of other philosophies influenced by ancient Greek culture have a practice known as memento mori. Simply translated, it means remember death. In practice, it’s about meditating on the idea of death and termination, remembering that you will die one day, as will your loved ones, and everything you care about will eventually come to an end. I know: this sounds pretty fucking miserable, and likely to lead to depression. Yet strangely enough, you’ll find that practicing this brings joy. How is that possible?
Here’s a question: if you could download your consciousness into a microchip that could be implanted into any life-like android/human body, allowing you to live forever, would you do it? This isn’t even really a hypothetical question; it’s only a matter of time before this becomes a genuine dilemma for humans to face. One day soon, maybe in our own lifetimes, the ability to become an invincible, immortal machine will be a very real option… at least for the super rich (to begin with). So, if you could afford it, would you do it?
Many people say ‘yes’. And most of those who say ‘no’ are lying to themselves, because the way they live clearly demonstrates a tendency toward safety and longevity; an undeniable desire to create the longest possible life. People will often sacrifice meaningful and enjoyable opportunities for lower-risk options that are perceived as safer over a longer term, like settling for a mediocre partner rather than ‘risking’ being single long enough to find an amazing partner. People often procrastinate if the action requires physical discomfort, as if they’re trying to attain a cryostasis; a frozen life.
We often fantasize about immortality, demonstrated most aptly by the many millions of religious and devout people who believe in the afterlife – an eternity of existence – despite the absolute absence of any evidence that such an existence, er… exists. There is no proof that our consciousness survives the death of our bodies or severe injury to our brains, yet all around the world a majority of people cling desperately to the hope that it does. Nearly everyone secretly or outrightly hopes that we essentially live forever.
What’s even more fascinating is how most religious people claim to believe in an afterlife, and yet – as comedian Doug Stanhope ruthlessly pointed out – they continue to wear seatbelts while driving. Why take safety precautions at all if a) God already has a master plan that you cannot change, and b) when you die you go to Heaven forever? Why mourn for the death of your child if they’re in a better place that’s a million times better than anything you could possibly hope to provide here on Earth? Stanhope ends this bit in his stand-up gig by muttering darkly, “It’s because you’re just not sure.” It could be argued that the suicide-bombers associated with certain Middle-Eastern religions are probably the only true believers, demonstrating their absolute faith in an afterlife. It seems to me that every other religious person is doing all they can to avoid going to paradise, i.e. trying to stay alive.
Why do we continue to wish for the afterlife and an eternal existence despite clearly not having full faith?
Like wishing to be famous, few people desire longevity of life without deeply exploring why they desire it, and what it would be like to actually attain it. Despite the numerous warnings we’ve received from celebrities throughout human history telling us that fame isn’t worth the hassle, we still pursue fame as if they’re lying to us. And people pursue the afterlife just as desperately, spending their entire lives obeying rules that their local church invented, in the hope that this will gain them the golden ticket to eternal life. We will simply do just about anything to avoid acknowledging the brutal truth that everything dies eventually.
Take a moment to consider what it would be like to not have the option of dying. Think beyond the short-term gains of never having to look both ways before you cross the street, and consider what it would be like to live not for decades but for millennia. To never even have the option to opt out. The never-ending repetition of day into night and back into day again, over and over and over, hundreds and thousands and millions of times. To have met all the people, done all the activities, and seen all the places, many times over. To have heard everything there is to hear, say everything there is to say, and feel everything there is to feel… over and over and over again.
We barely credit it, but death is the sole cause of urgency. My push to overcome my nervousness so that I could write and publish my books is a direct consequence of my acceptance of death. I know I’m going to die any day now, so there really is no time to spare when it comes to getting whatever small amount of wisdom I have out into the world, to have whatever helpful impact it can have. To ensure I don’t die with my song unsung. It’s the same urgency that forced me to courageously overcome my social anxiety, to ask my wife to marry me, to have a child, to start my own business, to stay in touch with my parents, and to do pretty much anything of meaning.
Cosmologist Neil de Grasse Tyson once observed that if you can’t die then there’s no reason not to put everything off until tomorrow. Procrastination is a way of life for the immortal. There are no deadlines (an appropriate word, don’t you think?) and no fear of missing out. There is, in fact, no reason at all why you should do something now. It can always wait. Imagine feeling the relaxed sluggishness you feel while away on holiday… forever.
In his book Homo Deus, historian Yuval Noah Harari points out that the cyborg elite of the future will actually be highly anxious humans. While technology will keep people alive forever, there will always be the possibility of being in a fatal accident; it will never be completely impossible to die. Therefore, those ‘immortal’ human-machines will live drowning in constant neuroses, a fear of death 10 times worse than mere mortals currently experience. We know we are definitely going to die and have no chance of preventing this, so we are able to take risks and enjoy our life. Imagine if you could live forever but you’d have to avoid taking physical risks. What kind of life would that be? You’d only feel safe if you were completely bubble-wrapped and hidden away from the world.
It’s OK to be afraid of death. As a human, you are wired to be afraid of the unknown. Death is the ultimate unknown; the fence that’s too high to see over. We just don’t know what’s on the other side, which is why we don’t really believe the preacher when he talks about Heaven, because how could he possibly know? If we really believed in an afterlife of eternal bliss, we’d take extreme risks every minute of the day (or just commit suicide, religion-permitting), hoping to die. Yet we avoid death so fervently that we aren’t even willing to risk living. We’d rather play safe and small than make the mistake of catching Death’s attention.
Memento mori is about desensitising yourself to the fear of death, so that you can start truly living. You won’t be free to live fully – to express yourself and take risks – until you are willing to die trying. You can sit around waiting for cancer or to choke on a chicken sandwich, or you can get out into the world and increase the risk of fatal consequences to experience the full richness and meaning of life. To have the courage to be so seemingly foolhardy, you must make your peace with mortality, or as Tyler Durden from Fight Club says, “Know, not fear, know that one day, you are going to die.”
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius would kiss his children goodnight while quietly reminding himself that this might be the last kiss. As a man who lost seven of his children to disease, he was painfully aware of the fragility of life, and was able to maintain a gratitude for the children who remained, knowing how lucky he was to have them. In modern times, we’ve become complacent in our reliance on medical science to keep our children alive, to the point where people actually doubt the efficacy of vaccines (despite all their children living past the age of 5 years). How much more present and loving would you be with your children if you felt unsure about them living to tomorrow?
Facing your fear of death will not bring you terror and despair – well, not permanently at least, though this might be the initial reaction. Instead, it will bring you gratitude and clarity. It’s easy to determine what you appreciate and what is important to you when you are reminded of how quickly and randomly it can be taken away. People are always so much clearer on what matters most when they’re lying on their deathbeds, full of regret for not speaking their truth, spending quality time with their families, and neglecting their health. Why wait until you’re old and decrepit to figure this out? Why doom your future self to living his final moments in tragic regret?
Getting kicked out of the Czech Republic by mistaken immigration officials made me appreciate the comforts of a stable home, something I’d become complacent about. My mother in-law being crippled by a stroke reminded me of how fragile our health really is, and how grateful I am for the simple abilities to walk and talk. My doctor confirming that I have a genetic disorder that causes abnormally high cholesterol levels and places me in the highest risk category for heart disease – the most efficient human-killer of all – gets me motivated to eat less dairy and do more exercise.
When you avoid looking Death in the face, you immediately begin to forget how incredibly lucky you are, and how tragically fragile life is. You start to become lazy and complacent, or you stay busy but you fret about unimportant things. You start to get into patterns of wasting time – be it through superficial social connections, unsatisfying work, unnecessary busyness (e.g. obsessive cleaning), and bingeing on dopamine-spiking comforts like television, porn and sugary treats. It still amazes me how few people are comfortable just sitting still and thinking because when they do they are immediately beset with existential dread. Rather than walking into this dread and exploring it, they busy their minds with pointless activity, anything seems better than acknowledging that there is no objective meaning to life and that we’re all going to die.
Know this: you haven’t really started living until you’ve faced up to the fact that you’re definitely going to die and lose everything. Not just eventually, but soon. Eventually becomes soon much quicker than you could possibly imagine, because every moment of your life is the present moment, and it’s inevitable that some day you’ll step into your last moment of conscious existence, the moment before your death. This will almost certainly occur before you feel ready for it, unless you prepare yourself to die well.
Just a few minutes each morning spent reminding yourself that everything you currently enjoy will soon be taken away, and that before you’re ready life itself will soon be taken away, you’ll be able to reset your priorities frequently, ensuring you never go too far down the path of pointlessness. If the thought of dying soon makes you feel like your job is a waste of time, quit, or at the very least start applying for better jobs today. If the realisation of the imminent death of your daughter fills you with grief, go and spend some quality time with her today rather than waiting until you’ve got some “free time”. If the thought of becoming a decrepit, cancer-ridden, feeble old fossil gives you a jolt of panic, then put down the biscuit, pick up a salad, and drop down for some push ups. Let death urge you into doing what you knew you should have been doing all along. Fight with Death, make Him wait another day.
Dan’s Top Resources
Dan has 3 bestselling non-fiction books available in both written and audio form:
- The Naked Truth, his latest release, shows you how radical honesty builds self-confidence and relationships
- Nothing to Lose explores how to build confidence from the inside by correcting the programming in your brain
- The Legendary Life is a very practical, action-focused guide on how to plan and execute a life plan that brings you your ideal lifestyle
Dan continues to put out high quality online self-paced courses through the Udemy platform
- Shamelessness: how to relieve yourself of the “not good enough” story
- Powerful Honesty: takes you through step-by-step development of your communication skills to be more charismatic and powerful in your honesty
- The 3X Confidence and Authenticity Masterclass program: use the famous 3X Model to build confidence in all areas of life
- Financial Freedom for Beginners: includes everything from budgeting, to getting a raise, to investing in the stock market, to starting a side-business and more
- Overcoming Your Fear of Rejection… Permanently!: covers the psychology of “rejection” and what actions to take to make yourself immune to the fear of it