On this day, which I like to think of as “Memento-morial Day”, we remember the dead.
Especially we remember those who have died for reasons none of us are ever really comfortable with: because we sent them off to kill others.
But I’ve always thought of it as a day more about Death than war. War is us using Death as a weapon against each other, and I think the Fundamentally Not-Okay-ness of war comes from the fact that we know we don’t really understand Death. We know it’s powerful; staggeringly so. We know it has something basic to do with what we’re all here for, but we have no real idea what it entails to kill someone, or to die ourselves — and because of that, we know darn well that we shouldn’t be messing with it. We know in our guts that war, and other forms of murder, are bad ideas, not only because they cause so much pain to the living (both the living we kill and the living who survive), but also because we don’t know what we’re doing.
What if we found out that every time we killed, we lost some life of our own? Or that everyone whose death was our fault would torment us forever in some afterlife? Or that we’d be reborn and everyone we ever killed would have total control over us in the next life? …At this stage in our knowledge, all those things are more or less equally possible, as are their opposites.
This is why wise people, no matter what their level of knowledge, still leave the dealing of Death (and the undoing of it, when we think about that possibility) to the Great One.
Death in the hands of people is like a loaded gun in the hands of a special-needs child. We could be doing far more damage than we could conceptualize from here…or we could be doing no damage at all. Hell, we could be doing people a favor when we kill them — maybe this is all a prison. (Fun fact: I have a story that explores this idea. Unfortunately it’s not very close to finished yet.)
Memento-morial Day is a good time to remember this, and to remind ourselves that though we live with death every day, it remains an unknown — a completely persistent mystery. I’m not willing to commit to the idea that it’ll be unknown forever, but it certainly is for now. And maybe there’s a good reason for it being an unknown — maybe we do really need to “have faith” as part of our experience of this life. Maybe we need to live alongside a great unknown like Death, and learn to live gracefully, and not just “in spite of it”.
This is where I think the usefulness of memento mori — remembering one’s mortality — comes in. Even if it’s not part of some Plan that we come to terms with the finite nature of our lives on Earth, it’s still immeasurably helpful in terms of our growth and the fullness of living we experience.
Living fully while innocent of what Death is is one thing. And living fully while staring right at it is a whole other thing besides. If you read my site at all, you probably have some interest in living face-forward, fully honestly and as in-touch with reality as you can get. I don’t think it’s possible to really get anywhere with that without regular doses of memento mori.
Mortality puts Life in a whole different league. When you remember that you’re mortal, you’re forced to acknowledge how extremely rare and special every single person on the planet is to you: Because out of billions of people and thousands of years, THESE are the sliver of those who’ve lived that lived at the same time as you did. You and they shared the temporal equivalent of the same cup of water from the ocean. And the people you meet, out of the billions on this planet that you never will; well, you shared a drop of that water. If, after you die, you look back and understand this, then how could you ever condone any act of violence, or even apathy, that you showed to any of those people?
…This is a great way to come to a real, visceral, more-than-intellectual realization of why it’s always better to be kind, and always worth it to be polite. You can talk to yourself about Aristotle all day long, but spend a few hours deeply immersed in the reality of how rare and amazing it is to share conscious space with anyone, and you’ll still remember that lesson long after you’ve forgotten The Four Causes.
There are many other realizations that come from remembering Death, from reaching out and feeling the memories we have of those who’ve Gone On To Something Else and — I do think this part is crucial — reminding ourselves that we’re going there too, and that we can never really know when or how.
I’ve found every single one of those revelations I’ve had to be good, in the long run. Sometimes there’s a period of struggle, resistance…but once it passes, encounters with Death always open one’s eyes. And in my opinion, encountering Death through meditation or contemplation is far easier than the other way. Do it consciously and deliberately, and you’ll have something there to fall back on when you turn a corner and find it waiting.
“Die with your eyes open,” was a Greek saying that inspired me tons, in high school. (As was memento mori, unsurprisingly. ;) Then, in college, I read the sappy but marvelous quote by Hermann Hesse:
“You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, single power, a single salvation… and that is called loving. Well, then, love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.”
So, I’m going to use today to work on changing my aversion to Death, through understanding (insofar as that works) and acceptance (where it doesn’t), into peace.
Because I’m sure the dead appreciate my thoughts, but I’m also sure that if they could talk, they’d be telling me to use the time I’ve got to become a better person.
Happy Death Day!