My 2-month-old son screamed at the top of his lungs as I walked around the nursery, holding him in my arms.
The sound pierced right to center of my brain, lighting up my nervous system like a Christmas tree and spiking my Meniere’s symptoms.
My ears rang louder and louder as he screamed inconsolably for more than an hour.
I didn’t know what to do. I was completely exhausted and starting to get dizzy. It felt like I was going to break.
But then a strange thought entered my head: “What if this was the last moment I would ever spend with my son?”
A morbid thought at first glance, but it instantly changed my perspective, and I started to calm down as a wave of love and affection washed away the adrenaline.
I suddenly just wanted to be with him. I wanted to savor every single second.
I wanted it more than anything.
A Meditation on Mortality:
This experience had a major effect on me.
The past few months have been some of the most difficult of my entire life, and this was the first time in a long time that I experienced such a dramatic change in my perspective. But it didn’t happen randomly.
I had been thinking a lot about a philosophical concept that I recently discovered called “Memento Mori.”
It’s a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “Remember that you will die” and can be found throughout history, dating all the way back to ancient Rome.
I understand that death is an uncomfortable topic. A lot of us spend a great deal of our lives avoiding thoughts of death. But the point of Memento Mori isn’t to make you uncomfortable; it’s the opposite in fact.
Memento Mori is the practice of reflecting on death, on our mortality, as a reminder to live fully in the time we have left, and to recognize what truly matters in life.
I’ve come back to this idea over and over since that moment with my son. It’s had a transformative effect on my daily experience, helping me cope with certain difficult moments, and keeping me focused on the things that are actually important to me.
When faced with death, or extremely difficult circumstances, many people experience this kind of change in perspective.
With a sudden and profound awareness of what really matters in life, many people regret the time and energy they spent throughout their lives chasing the wrong things and wish they could have done things differently.
Many of these people go on to live very different lives if death can be avoided. There’s even a clinical term to describe this kind of sudden and dramatic positive life change: Post Traumatic Growth.
When you’re diagnosed with a life changing chronic illness, whether terminal or not, these kinds of experiences are extremely common, too.
After my Meniere’s disease diagnosis, I was surprised to realize how much time and energy I had wasted worrying about things that no longer mattered to me at all.
I had taken so much for granted. The simple things, like feeling stable on my feet, the bliss of silence, or even being able to hear at all – these things mattered a lot to me when I suddenly faced their absence.
In a very real way, a part of me died when I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease. It really was like a death. My life changed forever. The old me was gone.
I do have a wonderful life now, and a lot to be grateful for, but I also still live with unwanted limitations, so it’s easy to forget the lessons and perspective that I learned early on.
A Thought Experiment:
The next time you are facing a difficult situation, whether you are sick, suffering, anxious, angry, or frustrated, I encourage you try the mental exercise of Memento Mori.
Ask yourself, “What if I die tomorrow? What if these are my last moments?”
Would you feel differently about your current situation? Would you do anything differently? In most situations, I would be willing to bet the answer is yes. It is for me.
You can externalize this practice, too. If you’re mad at someone, especially if it’s someone you care about, consider their mortality.
What if this was their last moment? What if you would never see them again after this? Would you still be mad? Would whatever you’re mad about even matter at all?
You can apply this kind of thinking to strangers, too. Would you yell at the customer service person on the phone if you knew they we’re about to die? Probably not. You might even go out of your way to make them feel appreciated.
Obviously, this is all just a thought experiment.
But on a deeper level, it carries a simple truth that is sometimes hard to face – we are all going to die one day. Life is fleeting. Every single one of us actually can die at any moment. And that’s what gives our life importance.
When things are difficult, like they are right now for me, this simple exercise can give you some much needed perspective and help you to remember what really matters.