We would not be here were it not for those who went before us.
I was at an October Día de los Muertos event in Arizona when my phone rang. The Day of the Dead is an ancient Aztec holiday honoring those who have gone before us. Historically celebrated in August, the holiday was moved to coincide with All Saints’ Day when Catholicism took over. A similar process happened with the Celtic holiday Samhain. The evening before All Saints’ Day, or Hallowmas, became known as Halloween.
But Día de los Muertos is not Halloween. The Day of the Dead isn’t about scary ghosts. Though painted skulls are ubiquitous at Day of the Dead events, the purpose is to show reverence for the dead.
My father couldn’t talk long. He had a lot of phone calls to make. He told me that my grandfather had died an hour ago. It did not come as a surprise. He was 95 years old and had been in failing health for the past few months.
How you feel when told that someone close to you has died is revealing. My grandfather, whom I called Pepere (pronounced “pepay”) was my last grandparent. My mother’s father died over a decade ago, and that was cause for great sadness for me. He was a quiet, decent, hardworking man whose latter years were stolen by Alzheimer’s. Both of my grandmothers died a year later, and my childhood memories of time spent with them were replaced with an empty space.
When I learned that Pepere had died I felt a sense of relief, but not sadness. His declining health caused him great suffering, and now that was over. But I never felt as close to him as I did to my other grandparents.
The eighth of eighteen children—all born to the same woman and man—his childhood was one of work. A native French speaker who grew up on Maine’s Canadian border, he quit school after seventh grade to help support the family. After a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps—a New Deal program to put young men to work—he served in the United States Navy throughout the entirety of World War II. After the war he married, had four children, and owned a grocery store.
Fathers from his generation were not known for close relationships with their children, especially their sons. But most modern fathers, including my father, have chosen to be emotionally available.
I can’t say I ever really knew who my grandfather was deep down. I’m not sure if he knew. It’s all in the past now. But were it not for those who went before me, I would not be here.
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius seems preoccupied with death. But context matters. Infant mortality was high in the ancient world, and plague (which Marcus contracted but survived) was a constant threat. Marcus also spent much of his reign on the battlefield.
From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Death is no loss
Death: something like birth, a natural mystery, elements that split and recombine. Not an embarrassing thing. Not an offense to reason, or our nature (4.5). Death: The end of sense-perception, of being controlled by our emotions, of mental activity, of enslavement to our bodies (6.28).
Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow or the day after. Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t make a fuss about which day it was — what difference would it make? Now recognize that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small (4.47).
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening – the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? (2.11)
Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years or ten times that, remember that you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another life other than the one you’re losing. The longest and the shortest lives end the same way. And the present is the same for everyone. Its loss is the same for everyone. So it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. You can’t lose the past or the future because you can’t lose what you don’t have (2.14, see also 12.36).
The person who comes to the end of the line has no cause for complaint. The time and stopping point are set by nature — our own nature. In some cases death from old age. Or nature as a whole, whose parts, shifting and changing, constantly renew the world and keep it on schedule (12.23).
Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already or is impossible to see. The span we live is small (3.11).
Don’t fear death
Fear of death is fear of what we may experience. Nothing at all, or something quite new. But if we experience nothing then we experience nothing bad. And if our experience changes then our existence will change with it. Change, but not cease (8.58).
Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore? (10.29) Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature. Like youth and old age. Like growth and maturity. Like a new set of teeth, a beard, the first gray hair. Like sex and pregnancy and childbirth. Like all the other physical changes at each stage of life, our dissolution is no different. So this is how a thoughtful person should await death: not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one of the things that happen to us (9.3).
Think of the people you’ll no longer be mixed up with. But there’s no need to feel resentment toward them — in fact, you should look out for their well-being and be gentle with them. But keep in mind that everything you believe is meaningless to those you leave behind (9.3).
When we cease from activity, or follow a thought to its conclusion, it’s a kind of death. And it doesn’t harm us. Think about your life: childhood, youth, old age. Every transformation a kind of dying. Was that so terrible?Then neither will the close of your life be — its ending and transformation (9.21).
An incentive to treat death as unimportant: even people who see pleasure as a good and pain as an evil still think nothing of death (12.34).
Life is trivial
Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen, tomorrow embalming fluid or ash (4.48). A trite but effective tactic against the fear of death: think of the list of people who had to be pried away from life. What did they gain by dying old? In the end, they all sleep six feet under. Our lifetime is so brief. And to live it out in these circumstances, among these people, in this body? Nothing to get excited about. Consider the abyss of time past, the infinite future. Three days of life or three generations: what’s the difference? (4.50)
Soon you’ll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most — and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, and trivial. Dogs snarling at each other. Quarreling children — laughing and then bursting into tears a moment later (5.33).
Keep this constantly in mind: that all sorts of people have
died — all professions, all nationalities. The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t (6.47).
Marcus reproaches himself
On the verge of dying and still weighed down, still turbulent, still convinced external things can harm you, still rude to other people, still not acknowledging the truth: that wisdom is justice (4.37). Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly (7.56, see also 10.15). Don’t live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. Be good while you’re alive and able (4.17).
Death isn’t the end
What dies doesn’t vanish. It stays here in the world, transformed, dissolved, as parts of the world, and of you. Which are transformed in turn — without grumbling (8.18).
How is it that the gods arranged everything with such skill, such care for our well-being, and somehow overlooked one thing: that certain people — in fact, the best of them, the gods’ own partners, the ones whose piety and good works brought them closest to the divine — that these people, when they die, should cease to exist forever? Utterly vanished (12.5).
Is it paradoxical to say that we should combine confidence with caution? Doesn’t caution seem like the opposite of confidence?
In book two of his Discourses, Epictetus says it’s a matter of knowing what to be confident about and what to be cautious about. And most of us get it backwards.
He says there’s no point in stressing over what might happen or what has happened because we can’t change the past and we don’t control the future.
But we should be cautious about things that are within our control – namely, our values, motivations, and choices. Yet, it’s far too easy to deceive ourselves about our selfish motivations.
Most of us, however, fear things that are not up to us. What if my flight is delayed? What if the stock market crashes?
But at the same time we can be overconfident, insisting we’re right and that our motivations are pure. Epictetus says this can lead to recklessness disguised as self-confidence.
To be deceived, then, or to act rashly, or to carry out some shameful act or harbor some shameful desire, we regard as being of no importance, provided only that we achieve our aim with regard to matters that lie outside the sphere of choice.
He reasons that outside events are neither good nor bad. But how we respond to them can be good or bad.
And when thinking about the best way to respond to these events we should second guess our true motivations. We must first make sure we’re not lying to ourselves about our true intentions. And we must make sure we’re not examining the situation with distorted thinking.
Epictetus even says we shouldn’t fear death. We’re all going to die one day anyway. Whether we lived a good life is what matters. But that can’t be decided on our deathbeds because the past is gone and there is no future.