My wife thinks it might be helpful if I share a little of my own story in this post and how I came to discover the concept of Memento Mori.
My family moved around a fair bit when I was a child. It made it difficult to sustain long-lasting friendships, but comics and movies proved to be happy substitutes. And pretty much the only movies my brother and I watched were Hollywood movies. We watched everything, from westerns to blockbusters to prestige dramas. They were our great escape.
We eventually settled in England. I went to school and, in the absence of a better plan, chose to study law at college. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a lawyer – there were no lawyers in my family or family’s friendship circle – but it sounded respectable. By the time I graduated, I was no closer to knowing what I wanted to do (and certainly lacked the zeal my classmates had for their future legal careers), so I signed up to do a masters thinking that in another year things might become clearer.
The same year I started my masters, the British visual artist Damian Hirst exhibited his work of art: ”The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” The piece featured a dead Tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. I’ve written about this piece in my post “The Shark.” At the time, for me, the shark was an item in the news cycle but little more.
Masters courses are notorious for the amount of work required. On my first day, I was given my own key to the library (in case I needed access “in the middle of the night”), shown my own personal desk, and handed a reading list of over 30 books. I subsequently found out this was the reading list for the first week.
I would never have guessed that Hirst’s shark was an augur. I flipped the newspaper page, as oblivious to what was coming as the jungle expeditions in movies that, as they hack through the brush searching for an ancient temple, miss the strange totem hidden by leaves that warns of horrors lying ahead.
Most of that year was spent in the library. I can still smell the must, can still see the spines of the books, the color of Cotswold stone, on the shelves around me. Undergraduates came in and out of the library, as predictable as a tidal flow, while we, the postgraduates, stayed in our seats surrounded by citadels of books. No drinking societies for us or drunken shopping cart races down the High Street at midnight.
For a thesis subject, I chose to explore how our conception of death affects our approach to human rights. It sounds morbid, I know, but this subject was at the intersection of two white-hot subjects at the time: human rights and general philosophy. I spent countless hours in the library researching and writing papers on the concept of death from a philosophic perspective, pondering such things as Sigmund Freud’s belief that any life-after-death is impossible to imagine because there will be no “I” to do the witnessing.
I had little or no idea the effect this prolonged exposure to the concept of death would have on me, but I essentially spent months confronting my mind with the very subject it was built to avoid. I was to discover that the effects would be no less far-reaching and life-changing than if I had unintentionally exposed myself to radiation. The effect wasn’t immediate, no skin burns or hair loss. But in hindsight, I now recognize the proverbial canaries in the mine: a creeping anxiety, a fluttering panic when I switched off my bedside lamp at night, a growing sense of dislocation from the world.
I didn’t know it then, but the damage would last my whole life. It basically rewired my brain, disabling the safety switch that exists in others to shield them from the knowledge that they will die one day. It started as a creeping feeling of mortality and became an omnipresent awareness.
The panic and anxiety seeped into every moment. I became fearful of turning off my bedside light at night, as the gathering darkness reminded me of non-being. Sometimes I would imagine the span of infinite time on either side of my birth and death and become tight-chested with anxiety. Whenever I was in a crowd of people, I would look around and wonder, “why isn’t anyone else talking about this?” It was like everyone was standing on the deck of the Titanic as it bore down on the iceberg and just checking their phones or idly chatting about January high street sales.
After university, I qualified as a lawyer and tried to build a practice but sleepless nights and constant anxiety made the process impossible. A paradox had begun to emerge in my thinking. I had begun to find the world meaningless and yet was also terrified at the prospect of leaving it. I did my best to reverse the effects, but without success. I then hoped the condition would lessen over time. But it turns out you can’t un-see the shark.
Things changed for me one day when, taking shelter during a rain shower, I wandered through a book shop and idly picked up a book in the philosophy section. It was by Epictetus, a Greek slave born 15-years after the death of Christ who became one of the earliest Stoics.
What caught my attention was Epictetus’ urging that we should all meditate on death. The Romans would later refer to this concept as Memento Mori. The idea that anyone would actively focus on something I’d been doing my best to avoid was shocking. I began to read more Stoic writing and found that Stoicism counselled us to go one step further. It proposed we consider something very specific: What would you do if you knew today was your last day alive?
For someone who’d spent years terrified by the knowledge that I would die one day, Memento Mori was a revelation. For many, Memento Mori is difficult to summon initially. So much of life is spent avoiding the idea of death that it takes time to think your way into it. Going inwards the first few times will likely only yield a few pieces of kindling from which to light a fire. That wasn’t true for me. I’d been haunted by death for years. I had a bonfire waiting and Memento Mori was the match.
I remember vividly walking to work one morning in Spring 1993, along a route I had walked possibly a thousand times. After another late night reading the Stoics, thoughts of Memento Mori were tumbling through my head. And the thoughts led me to an inescapable conclusion: I could not spend one more day not pursuing the life that I wanted. I remember stopping in the street and making a vow to myself, that by this time tomorrow I would have taken the first active steps towards this new life.
So, what was my best life?
That brings us back to the movies.
The idea of working in the dream factory, being a part of weaving those fantasies for the next generation of little boys and girls, began to pre-occupy me. Then again, it’s such a universal aspiration that it’s probably more a sign of avoidance than a genuine career choice. Most sensible people dismiss the fantasy and get on with the business of building a real life: starting an achievable career, finding someone to love, saving for a mortgage.
What probably made me different was the death anxiety I couldn’t shake, which turbo-charged Memento Mori. And I needed some turbo-charging, because neither I nor anyone in my family knew anyone in California, let alone anyone in the entertainment business. I was just an anxious junior lawyer sitting at a tiny desk in a gloomy room near a tube station in London. But I was utterly compelled by the call to live each day as if it was my last.
But once you’ve decided to pursue a long-held dream, what happens next? What are the next steps?
Although there were plenty of books on Stoicism and some historical books on Memento Mori, there didn’t seem to be a book on the practical steps you could take once Memento Mori had lit your fire.
In the absence of such a book, I spent the next few years digging into the Stoic texts and books from the modern Stoic movement. Slowly, I discerned a pattern forming for how Stoics approached the pursuit of life-projects, a pattern I touched on in my post “The Six Steps.”
I followed these steps with something approaching zealotry. It took me three years to get to Hollywood. This isn’t a story of magical thinking, where keeping a tight grip on your faith will lead to your dream inevitably manifesting. Every step was a struggle. There were delays, dead ends and endless frustrations. But I kept going, because Memento Mori gave me no other option. Death was waiting and I would not settle for anything less than the life I wanted.
In my next six posts, I’m going to dig deeper into each of the six steps in turn. I’ve used them so often they’ve become part of my unconscious programming. I’ve used them to pursue my career deeper into the entertainment industry, to learn to surf, to pursue professional creative writing, to have a family. Even to start writing this blog.
If you’re interested, join me for the next part of this journey.