Memento Mori

My father in his youth set off
With a kite and a liter of wine
Mad to determine
The height of the sky
And the breadth of
One human life
No ribbons, no starting gun
Sprinting around the sun
Man’s quaint little race
The heaving contenders
Get one thing to say
And it’s always the same:
Our names
Chiming through space

Dessa, Memento Mori

Memento mori is a Latin phrase, meaning “remember your mortality” or “remember, you must die.” Existential philosophers and therapists have long contemplated “the height of the sky and the breadth of one human life.” Memento mori speaks to the expansion of consciousness that occurs when we allow ourselves to actively hold the idea of death, of mortality, in our minds. Because our lives are not finite, we are faced with the choice of fearing the end or using the knowledge that we will someday die to reframe the ways in which we engage in the task of living.

Irvin Yalom, a prominent existential psychotherapist, summarizes the new way of seeing that becomes possible once we open up to and fully embrace the transience of life:

Though the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.

By understanding and embracing our own mortality, we are paradoxically prompted to more fully live. Lest this concept be misread for the kind of Hallmark sentimentality that urges us to Live! Each! Day! to! the! Fullest!, I should add that it is not at all easy to construe what it means to live life fully. Of course the definition will vary person to person.

Take a step back for a moment and survey the landscape of your day-to-day life. What do you see? What activities are you engaged in? Who is there with you? What are you thinking? What are you feeling?

Now take another step back. Maybe several steps back. Knowing that everything you see in front of you is ultimately impermanent, how does that change your outlook, your decisions, your dreams? Knowing that there will come a day when you are not, how do you choose to embody your life?

(3) Comments

  1. Bryan
    BryanFeb 02, 2011

    great post! I shall reflect upon it today

  2. eshalaev
    eshalaevFeb 03, 2011

    For me, death is the part of our lives. Dead are close to us. I look around: some of my very close people are dead, but they stay close with me.

  3. When Death Comes « Sandra Sanger, PhD
    When Death Comes « Sandra Sanger, PhDFeb 03, 2011

    […] writing about the concept of memento mori, I stumbled across several of Mary Oliver’s poems that kept me thinking. Perhaps they will […]

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