Memento Mori (Remember you must die) Part I

Memento Mori” : it sounds scary, doesn’t it? It sounds morbid, doesn’t it?

But it is not. It is a cornerstone of the Stoics, and one that I feel is appropriate today whilst death has been forced into the daily consciousness due to Covid-19. It is no longer this abstract concept that no one wants to mention, or even think about. If a grandparent wishes to make plans for their death and their estate, it is seen as “unseemly”, “rude”, a “jinx”. It belongs to the realm of “we don’t speak of these (nasty) things”.

In the films, TV shows and books, death is portrayed in many ways. Very often the family or lover stands next to the bed as the last words are spoken (of course very profound), the last gasp of breath and the head lolls to the side – peaceful and content. Or there are scenes of angels hovering to lead the dearly departed to the heavens above (in Christian Countries that is). Or there are bright lights and tunnels. Harry Potter even had Kings Cross Underground station all gleaming white!

People suddenly seem to become all knowing, wise, compassionate and kind when they die; regardless of their true character. I do not wish to offend, or seem callous – but I am tired of the same characteristics that are used to eulogise the just departed – whether they have been killed in an accident, murdered, die of awful diseases (like cancer), die of problems arising from illness (especially sepsis and septic shock – I will explore these further at some point), die of deadly viral infections (Covid, Flu, etc.) and those who die by suicide. The suicide squad tend to be the anomaly in the descriptions of those that have “passed” (when did that word appear?)- another way in which to negate the idea of death. If you think about it, passed implies the person has moved on – which requires a place to start and a place to go to. It implies that we are just travelling through our life in order to go somewhere. If you are religious this could be seen as appropriate in your faith. However, it is inappropriate for those that do not have beliefs in heaven (Valhalla and others).

I got side tracked there. Suicide confounds, distresses, and confuses. It seems to automatically turn on the guilt (or at least pretence of guilt). It forces, sharply and annoyingly, one to face the reality of death. It cannot be disguised under names of illness or disease; tragic accident (always someone else’s fault of course); “act of God” such as hurricanes and tsunamis; corruption (e.g. Beirut); human rights murders and genocide.

It is what it is! (to turn the orange man overseas into a positive phrase). Death is death. That is it. You live, and one day you die. There are many ways we can die. Many reasons why. The “poor souls” who killed themselves illuminate this reality. Whilst it goes against the moral grain to do this (depending what you believe – you either go to hell or to heaven plus; and even agnostically), suicide shows that their life is in so much pain that they can no longer bear it. They do not commit this act to die, but to escape their emotions. They do not do this to anger anyone or make them “feel sorry” or regret their actions. It is because of this unbelievable anguish and despair. Unfortunately, the reality is that many of those left behind (not all) could have helped. Could have cared. Could have taken the time? Could have tried? In fact, could at least have tried. Unfortunately so many don’t – regardless if it is their colleague, friend or family. I think there quite a number of reasons why they don’t (this topic can be for another time). But there is always some level of responsibility they must acknowledge.

Back to the character speeches when someone has died. These are the standard phrases that I have heard in nearly every case. He was a wonderful father / son/ colleague … She always had time for others. He always put others first. She was so kind and thoughtful. There was nothing he wouldn’t do. She was always cheerful. Everybody loved him. She was a friend to so many people and touched so many lives in so many different ways. A reliable, hard-working, kind and considerate man. But despite his worsening illness, he never grumbled or complained about his sometimes obvious discomfort, a rare virtue in any man. She was a friend to so many people and touched so many lives in so many different ways. He had a great sense of humour,  privileged to know him. A genuine, sincere, friendly fun loving lady. She was a warm, loving, generous, compassionate, understanding mother and dear friend to you all. Etc…. Etc…. Etc…. Etc…

I think that I must be living on a parallel universe. My world does not exist of all these most amazing human beings. Just listening to these makes me feel totally inadequate. I might want to, and try to be a perfect person – but don’t think I will achieve this saintly state of being. In fact, although I know quite a lot of wonderful people that I admire and love – they do not qualify for the phrases above. I know many more people who are decent, even more who can be decent. Some who are very questionable and some whom I would use the word “evil” to describe.

I am sure there are ways to state imperfections as a realisation of the person’s character in a non belittling manner. I can easily imagine a description of me including “she was not good at communication” (I am terrible); “she had Bipolar disorder and as such became depressed which could be hard to cope with.”; “Although she was awful at remembering birthdays, she cared deeply about her friends”.

Watch the news press conferences and you can see what I mean.

It feeds into this fear of death. We must say nice things – even if they are not true. We must carry on the pretence that “they” can hear us from their ethereal abode. We must leave an excellent perception of them in everyone’s lives. This is amusing as we can presume that people who will have known the deceased, actually knew that person, knew their pros and cons and foibles. So why make it up??

I had a near death experience. I think that I only knew about it because I lived. If I had died I would have “passed (haha)” with no knowledge at all. I would quite simply have ceased to exist. I cannot remember anything for about 2 weeks (I don’t know exactly). Last thing I recall was feel unwell in bed in my flat and hearing someone knocking. I think I slid across the floor on a pillow (my watch face is totally scratched., but no idea if I ever reached it. Next thing I weaved in and out of consciousness for another 10 days or so. But, I was aware of a sensation – when I was at my worst (not expected to survive).

My conclusions are: If you are in hospital it doesn’t hurt to die, you just do. There are no bells and whistles, angels or demons. It makes no distinction between people. You cannot “bribe” death to leave you alone.

Above all else it was this soft, silky, light, supportive cocoon of a warm light yellow. I have looked on the web, in my art books, my mums gardening magazines – everywhere. But I cannot find that exact shade of yellow. If that is death – I don’t mind it.

Living Through History

At the moment, the world is bewildering, frightening, illogical, frustrating, formidable, dire, demoralizing and daunting. I am filled with alarm, fear, distress, and despair. I think about the past: the errors and the successes. I think about how it appears that our rulers, governments and the people have forgotten the reality of the past.

Recently I have been given a number of books on the build-up to World War II. The 1930’s. It is fascinating to see all the “near misses” by which the war could have been avoided – if only people had listened and observed the reality rather than the sham actions which were performed to misdirect the world from the real process of creating an absolute dictatorship aimed at annihilation of certain groups of people. We look back, and it is assumed that the West were the victors, the “goodies”. But before the war the Western politicians did not take notice of the events in Berlin and elsewhere. They assumed that if they could talk to Hitler, war was very unlikely – after all, he was (apparently) charming, quiet and intelligent.

He smiles…and cuddles …and she is blonde….just like all the Trump women
Hitler smiling and chatting to fans (circa 1934)

Germany was in the midst of advertising their nation as being a wonderful place for a holiday. And so visitors flocked to Germany.

1935 Advert for Holidays in the Rhine


Holiday Advert 1930: Looks grand!

They loved the scenery, the young people who were all strong, fit and blonde. Who stayed in youth hostels in gaggles (this was the Hitler Youth – already brainwashed).

Advert 1934 – Join the Hitler Youth
Very young members of Hitlers Youth (mid-1930’s)

circa 1935: Eleven year old boys in the Hitler Youth organization learning how to fire a rifle. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The SS had been formed and were in the background in case of any dissent. Some holiday goers (and diplomats) were even taken to visit the “highly successful labour camps” – they came away impressed at how well the “guests” were looked after – it turns out that the inmates they saw – were prison guards dressed up nicely and smiling. There was little enquiry as to why there were camps at all.

Labour camp opened in 1933
Labour camp opened in 1933

In addition, I got a fright reading about all the English and Americans supports of fascism, racism and even nazi-ism.

And, in my humble opinion, it seems that quite a large chunk of humanity has yet again bought into the rhetoric of fascism and populism: oblivious to reality and utterly devoid of empathy, respect and integrity.

I am scared. I am getting “scarder”. And I am petrified of the future my children are having foisted upon them, It seems unfair (but a huge compliment) that it is the youth that will have to redress the wrongs of this generation. But they are intelligent, tech-savvy, globally aware and compassionate. I believe that they can achieve great changes for the better. I don’t believe the older generation can (especially if they keep harking back to “we won the war” – actually “we” didn’t; dare I say that was the cold war’s arch enemies – the Russians, that actually turned the tide.)

What is happening is that we are Living through History. As unpleasant as it is. The following quote (Daily Stoic) helps me:

It’s strange to think that we can take comfort from this, but we can. Marcus Aurelius wanted us “to bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before. And will happen again—the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging.” Everyone who’s ever lived, including you, lived through history. They experienced the sausage being made—and that’s never pretty.

Realize that that’s what is going on right now. That’s what the Trump presidency is. That’s what COVID-19 is. That’s what climate change and Black Lives Matter protests and so many other things are. These are historical events and you’re living through them. It’s up to you whether you live through them passively, or actively. You have the chance to influence that history. Some of us in a big way, others in a smaller way. But we all have the opportunity to face them with proper Stoicism—which means not panicking, not betraying your principles, that means acting with courage, moderation, justice and wisdom.

Philosophy (Stoics and Others)

I fell into the ideas of the Stoics by accident (I heard it on TV and realized that I did not really know what it meant; so I used that greatest of encyclopedias – the Internet; to find out.) But I have been seduced by its simplicity and ability to be directly signposted to all the misfortunes that I have had to endure. It certainly has helped me most recently in coming to terms with not just all my financial and emotional losses, but especially in terms of my “death” experience. I would like to share some of their philosophical ideas and welcome robust debate around their topics.

Stoicism is Ideal for the Real World
The Stoics were writing honestly, often self-critically, about how they could become better people, be happier, and deal with the problems they faced.

They saw that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment should be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.

Ultimately, that’s what Stoicism is about. It’s not some systematic discussion of why or how the world exists. It is a series of reminders, tips and aids for living a good life.

I like that it is all about us improving ourselves, having no judgement on other people or their belief systems; and realising that we can only control ourselves.

Since the global epidemic has crept upon us, not just as the unexpected, unbiased and silent killer of homo sapiens; but also as the destroyer of life as a secondary effect (loss of income, of possessions, of purpose, of self-confidence, loss of life due to other disease relegated to the back seats of the hospital departments, loss of life due to starvation, or suicide, or fear). We see capitalism failing the people of lands, populist leaders inexplicably retaining political support whislt implementing yet greater controls over freedom and people’s rights.

Where will this all lead? who knows? how many really care? Do we go back to “normality” as it was: greedy, selfish, destroying? or do we try to use this amazing opportunity to create a new “normal”; we see smog and pollution dissipating, jellyfish in Venice, goats, foxes and even mountain lions in towns; we see penguins in Cape Town….it shows us how very possible it is for our natural world to regenerate, and quickly.

Somehow I doubt that the majority of the world/s (leaders?) will care about this and will just wish to find new ways of becoming rich again (or on top).

This is where the Stoics come from, this is the type of situation that they prepared themselves for, that led to their success whilst all else was falling down around their ears. So in a strange way, I feel as though I am emotionally better off than most and able to manage the current situation as just part of my life – not a life changing or scary unforeseen event.

I have put a link to the Daily Stoic website as they have amazing information, including daily emails and courses, which are relevant, include references and suggested activities. I do not wish to regurgitate what they disseminate (it is their material), rather I will “stream of consciousness” my thoughts.