It may seem morbid right now to say “ remember death” when surrounded by a pandemic. But it is the truth. We don’t know how long we have left to live. We don’t know if the illness will spare us and our loved ones. We don’t know how our neighbours and extended family will cope in the times to come. Villages, townships, districts, states and countries- the boundaries have never been more sharply drawn. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is getting replaced with FOGO (Fear of Going Out).
I am reminded of a story from the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata. A thirsty Yudhishtira, the eldest of the Pandavas, has to confront a celestial voice, before he can drink the waters of a lake. All his 4 brothers lay dead near the lake, presumably from drinking this water. The celestial voice (which later turns out to be that of Yama, the lord of death and righteousness) demands that Yudhishtira answer his questions before he can proceed to drink from the lake. One of the questions asked is “What is the greatest wonder in the world?” To this Yudhishtira replies, “Even though people are aware of the scores of deaths around them each day, they wish to be immortal and assume that they are going to live forever. This is the biggest surprise”.
Socrates is known to have promoted the ancient practice of reflecting on death as a fundamental tenet of philosophy. To me, Memento Mori is about knowing that one’s time on earth is limited. It is about keeping one’s ego aside and seizing the day. Facing death as an inevitable outcome can make us do the things really important to us. It makes us understand what is beyond one’s locus of control and what is well within the limits. It is about being grateful for the things we normally take for granted. The poem below is what I tell myself :
for the family you have
for the food on your table
for the wealth of health you have
for the immense opportunity to serve
for the khakis that make sure you are on purpose and safe
for the vehicle that ferries you around
for the roads that lay temporarily bare
for the few faces that stare at you from behind their masks
for the journeys undertaken in silence
for the greenish blue ripples on a clear pond
for the beauty of a lone peacock peeking into that first floor room!
for the unspoken prayers around the closed temples
for the people locked-in and keeping everyone safe
for the longish spaced queues outside the open stores
for the plenty of fruits and vegetables
for the co-workers pulling on alongside you, no matter what
for each day break, for every night fall
for every tiny precious moment to cherish
for the life that you are living
for the gift of the present you own
Seneca had said “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time”.
This is the time to remember death and do what needs to be done.