Control, Freedom, and Death

Memento Mori

Life sucks and then you die. This statement is True. Stoicism refers to this reality as Memento Mori. It’s Latin, and translates to “Remember that you [have to] die”. When I say, “Life sucks and then you die”, it’s intended to be punchy. It’s intended to be abrupt. But, it’s not meant to be mean, rude, or offensive. I don’t mean to imply that life can’t be joyful. I don’t want you to hear that I hate life. But, I have been alive long enough to recognize that much of our time here is dictated by our experience of pain, the avoidance of that pain, and the constant march of death.

Maybe your life is different. Perhaps you have lived a golden existence, bereft of all discomfort and overflowing with advantages and happiness. If that is the case, I am so happy for you. And I wish you the best. But I also know it won’t last forever, and someday, you too will be greeted with the reality of Memento Mori. And when that day comes, all you will have left is a choice. A choice on how to handle the reality that you were not given a choice. That you were not consulted first. That the pain and grief were not optional. Memento Mori is not meant as a discouragement. Rather, it is intended to equip you for your inevitable experience of death and pain. I love my life. It is because of my honest appreciation of Memento Mori that I love life.

The comedian Denis Leary sums up Memento Mori best in the following monolog:

“Most people think life sucks, and then you die. Not me. I beg to differ. I think life sucks, then you get cancer, then your dog dies, your wife leaves you, the cancer goes into remission, you get a new dog, you get remarried, you owe ten million dollars in medical bills but you work hard for thirty five years and you pay it back and then one day you have a massive stroke, your whole right side is paralyzed, you have to limp along the streets and speak out of the left side of your mouth and drool but you go into rehabilitation and regain the power to walk and the power to talk and then one day you step off a curb at Sixty-seventh Street, and BANG you get hit by a city bus and then you die. Maybe”

Denis Leary

Again, it’s harsh. It’s meant to be harsh. It’s meant to wake us up. But, it is not intended to remove hope. It simply forces us to change the narrative.

The Narrative

If you work hard enough, you can be successful and have the American Dream. If you marry the right person, you can find true happiness. If you hold onto life tight enough, you will get what you want. This is the narrative. Unfortunately, this narrative never survives the introduction of Memento Mori. Yet, it’s the default narrative of existence. Everyone of us, myself included, defaults to the assumption that we are in control. We all believe that our opinions are correct. We all think that if we just could have our way, the world would be a better place. We all assume personal control as the default context for life.

But, the truth is, we don’t have control. Not over our health, not over our finances, not over our relationships. When the dog dies, when the cancer comes back, when the spouse leaves, it’s always a shock. And it hurts. And we have the right to be hurt. But, that hurt is often accompanied by the dissolution of control.

We never had control. Whether God or Fate, life mostly just happens to us. We can push circumstances in a direction through our own efforts. But, our best efforts are meaningless within the larger context of world affairs. For every Jeff Bezos, there are many failed and bankrupt “Could have beens”. Luck does not care about you. This does not mean that we should not work hard. Nor does it imply that our actions don’t matter. Our actions are critically important. But, the outcomes of our actions are not under our control.

The years of effort dedicated towards building a successful business, instantly destroyed by a stock market collapse which none of us regular folk caused. The spouse that left, despite our persistent care and love. The car accident, the cancer, the loss of family. We always assume control. But in an instant, that control can be ripped out of our hands.

Joy in Suffering

I consider myself profoundly blessed. Blessed to have been born in the United States. Blessed to have two living and loving parents. Blessed to have grown up without the fear of income instability. Blessed to have all my essential needs met. My starting block in life has been at a huge advantage over most of the world’s population. But, my biggest blessing in life has been my pain. From the age of 12 until I was 17 years old, I suffered from undiagnosed and severe Crohn’s disease. I have almost died from my disease on multiple occasions, and I suffered from crippling pain for many years. I now consider that experience to be joy.

I didn’t always consider my traumatizing and disabling disease to be joy. There were days that I wanted to die. There were years when I could not eat more than one meal per day, when I would purposefully starve myself to avoid the violence of my body’s inability to process food. I remember weeks of hell. I just wanted it to end.

I know suffering well. We are companions. And I know people who’s lives are filled with stories far more severe than my own.

My experience of pain has taught me a simple lesson. Don’t hold on too tight. I know that I will die. I know that everything I have worked to build can be taken away in an instance. I know that someday all that I have accumulated will be dust. So, I don’t try to control my outcomes. Because I know that I can’t. I’m not God and that’s not my job. All that I can control is what I do next. I don’t have to worry about tomorrow, because I might be dead tomorrow. All I have to be concerned with is my choices right here and now.

I learned to have joy while suffering. I stopped waiting for the pain to go away, and instead focused on what little I did have authority. I had put my life on hold while I waited for the ability to control my disease through some form of medication or diet. But, nothing worked, and with each disappointment, I felt my control break to pieces. My personal breakthrough started when I decided to stop trying to control my circumstances and instead put all my focus on the present moment and the work in front of me. I stopped spending all my energy looking for relief from my pain and looking for future realities. Instead, I began to focus on building relationships, learning skills, and living the best life I could within the context of chronic pain. I started learning to judge my value based on personal growth, and stopped paying so much attention to what I couldn’t do. And when the list of things I could not do grew larger, I didn’t punish myself mentally, because I no longer assumed that I had control over my own life. Instead, I learned to smile through the pain and focus on the things I had left.

Thankfully, I have been blessed with excellent doctors who were able to put me onto an innovative treatment plan which has resolved most of my symptoms and chronic pain. But, I still have bad days. And when those days come up to the surface, I am glad for them. Because they remind me to stop holding onto my life so tightly.

TLDR

Life sucks and then you die. It’s true. And none of us escape this reality. What matters is how we live with this reality. Do we let it destroy us? Or, do we let the experiences of Memento Mori mold us into people who can help teach and build up others? Do we let our lack of control turn us bitter? Or, do we use our present moment to inspire positive change? Because if I know anything, it’s that even when I am struggling, someone else is struggling more. I only made it out alive because of the friendship of strangers who chose to invest in relationship with me, not knowing where that choice would lead.

Life sucks and then you die. It’s an encouragement.

“It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad has happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. I know now folks in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

Samwise Gamgee

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