Memento Mori

By Alex Beal
March 28, 2018

Just as conversation or reading or some deep reflection beguiles travelers and they find that they’ve reached their destination before being aware of approaching it, so with this ceaseless and extremely rapid journey of life, which we make at the same pace whether awake or sleeping: the preoccupied become aware of it only at its end. – Lucius Annaeus Seneca, “On The Shortness of Life”, 9.1

Years ago, I came across a visualization of my own mortality. It was an image composed of many tiny squares. Each square represented one month, and each row contained 12 of them, one for each month of the year. The rows were arranged in groups of 10, each representing a decade. Some of the squares were filled in, representing months I had already lived out, and some were not, representing months I had yet to live. The entire visualization contained 984 squares, equivalent to 82 years of life – the average life expectancy for someone like me. Seeing my past and future laid out like this was disturbing. All of a sudden, time felt very scarce, and the effect was to invite me to think about how best I could spend each square. Life is an optimization problem, full of choices with unclear consequences and an ever approaching time horizon.

There’s a name for these things: memento mori which is Latin for remember that you must die. I’ve become a bit of a collector of these artifacts. At one point, I created a watch face for a smart watch that displayed how many seconds I had left, again assuming an 82 year life span. Here it is below displaying 1,601,529,783 seconds left to live. I’ve since used up 133,488,986 of those seconds.

Viewing time this way makes it seem as though those 82 years are guaranteed. This isn’t true of course. 82 just falls around the middle of the distribution. Below, I’ve created that image again, this time annotated with a probability every decade. It represents the chance I’ll make it that far, based off social security data.

But what really matters isn’t the months themselves. It’s what I can do with those months. In an average month, I’ll read a single book, and drink around 30 cups of coffee, both activities I deeply enjoy. Once again, here is that image, annotated with cups of coffee I have yet to drink and books I have yet to read.

So there’s only a 52% chance I’ll get to read 606 more books and drink 18,180 more cups of coffee. I better make those count. I think about this a lot, but I find that time still slips through my fingers. I’m making an effort to change that and live more intentionally, but it doesn’t come naturally. I have to constantly remind myself: memento mori.