I crawled out of a drainage ditch in Nepal in April last year. My first thought was, I need to get a tattoo. My next thought was, I need to find a doctor. My shin was split wide open on the bone having caught the lip of the drain. The blood was flowing freely. The locals threw me in a taxi. I survived. I also got my tattoo.
My tattoo says “Memento Mori”. Remember, we are all mortal. We will all die. I don’t find this thought morbid. It is a constant reminder to me to keep a perspective on what happens to me on a daily basis. To make the most of my life. To remind myself of what is important in the general scheme of things. To not sweat the small stuff.
I am a legally blind bachelor in my mid 50s. My life is far from perfect. I don’t regard myself as a winner. That suggests life is a competitive race with a podium at the end. It doesn’t work that way. The finish line is the same for all of us. We all end up back as part of the universal whole, regardless of our ethereal achievements. All Black captains, hedge fund managers, Presidents and billionaires all reach the same finish line. So make the most of the ride and don’t despair. Strive to achieve your positive potential, but keep perspective. No one is that important in the general scheme of things. I like that thought. It provides solace as I observe ego driven power obsessed morons who fail to realise their own eternal irrelevance.
I like being this age. I don’t even mind my lack of sight and my inability to drive. It’s a great excuse not to conform. To live a slower life. I even like my accumulated scar tissue. I earned it.
My experiences and personal circumstances have shaped my life and my attitude, for better or worse. I am far more settled and at peace with myself than I was in my youth. Not perfect or sorted, but ok.
Maybe it’s a change in brain chemistry . Or maybe it’s the acquisition of wisdom and insight that age and experience provides.
“Memento mori” is Latin. It is a core belief of the Stoic philosophy of Ancient Greece and Rome. Stoicism is not about being a hard man. Its core belief is understanding what we can and can’t control in our lives. What we can control is our own attitudes and feelings. Most else is largely beyond our control. So why worry about it?
In Ancient Rome, victorious generals were paraded through the city on chariots. Often they were accompanied by a slave who murmured the phrase “memento mori” in their ear as they were greeted by adoring crowds. It was meant to give them perspective. To keep them grounded. To ram home that they were still mortal and that aging, illness and death would eventually catch up with them. To remind them that Fame and fortune are fleeting. We are all mortal.
I trekked up to the Annapurna base camp in Nepal last year. 4500 metres of sheer concentration, up and particularly down. I was proud of myself because I am down to less than 20 percent vision. I then fell into an open drain in Pokhara on my return. I was sober at the time. Pure hubris. I knew I was in serious trouble. A large open wound in that part of the world is an invitation to septosemia.
Yet as I awaited help, I felt strangely relaxed. In my mind was the question, ” what is the worst that can happen here ? The answer is obvious. I survived.
There is much discussion about the need to teach our young people resilience. I believe the answers lie in philosophy. Not high brow philosophy that dulls the brain with obscure arguments and obtuse language. The central question of practical philosophy should be “what is a good life? ” what is the best way to live your life? Good Philosophy should provide consolation to the difficulties and uncertainties of life. It should provide practical answers in a difficult uncertain world. That was the appeal of Stoicism in Ancient Rome.
It’s how we deal with the unfortunate and unexpected situations in our lives that shape and define our characters. There is no perfect life. But having a decent clear philosophy on life certainly makes it easier. Avoiding open drains in less developed countries also helps.
Peter Lyons teaches Economics at Saint Peter’s College in Epsom and has written several Economics texts.