by Ryan Holiday
"Were all the geniuses of history to focus on this single theme, they could never fully express their bafflement at the darkness of the human mind. No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We're tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers." - Seneca
Born with a chronic illness that loomed large throughout his life, Seneca was constantly thinking about and writing about the final act of life. "Let us prepare our minds as if we'd come to the very end of life," he said. "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."
Most interestingly, he quibbled with the idea that death was something that lay ahead of us in the uncertain future. "This is our big mistake," Seneca wrote, "to think we look forward to death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death." That was Seneca's great insight - that we are dying every day and no day, once dead, can be revived.
So we should listen to the command that Marcus gave himself. He wrote,"Concentrate every minute like a Roman on doing what's in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions." The key to this kind of concentration? "Do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life."
That's the power of Memento Mori - of meditating on your mortality. It isn't about being morbid or making you scared. It's about giving you power. It's to inspire, to motivate, to clarify, to concentrate like a Roman on the thing in front of you. Because it may well be the last thing you do in your life.
The Stoics were philosophers, but more than that they were doers. They didn't have room for big words or big ideas, just stuff that made you better right here, right now. As Marcus Aurelius said: "Justice, honesty, self-control, courage, don't make room for anything but it - for anything that might lead you astray, tempt you off the road, and leave you unable to devote yourself completely to achieving the goodness that is uniquely yours."