Tempus Fugit. Memento Mori. This is an old phrase in the Christian Faith that you don’t hear often anymore. Even in the world that deals with the afterlife, death is an unwelcome subject for so many.
Translated from Latin it means this: Time flies. Remember death.
To Christians, this phrase is used to help focus the followers of Christ – a reminder that this life is very temporary when compared to eternity; and that while it is easy to get swept away in drugs and alcohol, or Netflix, or one-night stands, remember that you only have so much time to get it right before your time is up and your judgment comes.
The phrase has a sort of whimsy to it that caught my attention when I first heard it. Often paired with skull and crossbones, I could imagine a Jack Sparrow type character saying it to me while winking. Like most people, when I first heard this phrase, death wasn’t something I thought of regularly. Nor did I want to. Death is an uncomfortable thing and we tend not to like to think that we too will meet our ends.
But then it occurred to me that even in the secular world, this phrase lives in the works of artists, musicians, filmmakers, and philosophers alike.
Think about it for a minute. How many times have you been asked, if this were the last day of your life, what would you do? How would you live your life?
I remember the movie fight Club, where the main character’s Jungian archetype Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) held a young man at gun point and forced him to stare death in the face so that he could reattach to how important life is. Later saying that tomorrow his breakfast will be the best food he has ever tasted. He will be awake with a renewed sense of purpose.
Or perhaps you’re a country music fan and loved the Tim McGraw hit “Live Like You Were Dying” where he shared that he met a man who found out he was dying and then went sky diving, Rocky Mountain climbing, and 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu. He then told the writer and the audience “I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.”
Or maybe you like pop punk music and remember when the Blink 182 spinoff +44 echoed the sentiment by saying “a little death makes life more meaningful.”
All of this is centered around the idea that death is a great motivator – an inspiration to drink in all that life has to offer. In our shared cultural stories, and in the stories we tell ourselves when no one else is around, we say if our time were limited, then we would be the person we are meant to be.
All of this while knowing that our time is indeed already limited, and we just don’t know the exact date when that all ends.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because our culture has been experiencing a lot of tragic death due to sickness and an immense fear of death from even those who are healthy.
I’ve been watching the various natural human responses to this new fear in our lives. Some people are panicking and trying to do everything they can to preserve their lives and the lives of others by staying inside as much as possible and imploring everyone to wear masks. I’ve seen heroes in the form of doctors, nurses, first responders, priests, and others desperately trying to fulfill their callings – rising to the occasion in our shared moment of fear.
I’ve also seen others ignore the pandemic, looking into the numbers, and deciding that come what may they want social contact, intimacy, and a vibrant life.
I understand all these responses and to some extent I have felt all of them in myself throughout this pandemic.
But I keep coming back to tempus fugit, memento mori.
Time flies. Remember death.
Life is fragile and every life that passes is a tragedy. Especially those that are forced to pass alone due to quarantine protocol.
In the end, life and death and how we view them are all centered around the idea of congruity. In all of the examples from our pop culture above, there is this underlying idea that we are all some sub-par version of ourselves and the real us, the fully actualized us, is something we are putting off until a later date when things are easier, more convenient, or “possible.”
So once again, as our society is faced with a conflict and people are becoming drunk on political division, anger, and tribal arguments; we are faced with death and the fear of death. How is it that you will choose to respond to this moment? Will you grow in love and appreciation, or will you cultivate your fear and resentment? Will you find a powerful meaning in your life or will you focus on a disempowering meaning?
Time flies. Remember death.
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