In Praise of Morbid Contemplation

If you do some Google searching on the internet for phrases like “morbid thinking” or “thinking about death” you’re quickly going to get the message that you need psychiatric intervention and drugs, lots of drugs.  Thinking about one’s impending mortality is generally seen as an unhealthy activity.  Interestingly this is not the case when one searches under “contemplating death”.  Contemplation of death gets a far more considered and less pharmaceutical treatment.  The distinction between the two is that contemplation is a more conscious and controlled activity than mere swirling thoughts which stray into obsession.  Contemplation to the Greeks and Romans came from the idea of taking something into a separate space (con meaning with and templum describing separation like the sacred space of a temple).  To contemplate was to study something in a removed, aware and focused state.

We all have thoughts and feelings whether we wish them or not.  Alternatively, contemplation is an activity we must choose and practice.   Mortality is something we emotionally prefer to avoid dwelling on.  Unless we or someone close to us is forced to face death then it is a topic many prefer to keep in the abstract and in the future.  Unfortunately for the individual who would be Agathos this avoidance of reality is not useful.

Many cultural traditions have taught a resolute acceptance of death.  Sometimes this was due to a cultural milieu where death occurred with great regularity and its reality was difficult to avoid.  It would have been pretty hard to ride with Genghis Khan and not have some awareness of mortality.  Usually, contemplation of life’s inevitable end served the productive purpose of valuing life in the present moment.  Once one recognizes that everything is inherently impermanent one more fully experiences the present.  We become less attached to fantasies of a future that does not exist and may never come to pass.

Eastern traditions like Buddhism cultivated this awareness through meditation on impermanence.  This practice carried into the martial sphere via ideals like Bushido where contemplation of mortality helped to eliminate hesitation and fear.  If life is transient then to hurl oneself into battle and attain glory was like the brief but beautiful flowering of the cherry blossom (their analogy, not mine).

In the West the martial tradition stretching back to the heroes of the Iliad shares that Carpe Diem attitude.  While it would later be altered by Christianity, the earlier belief that a good death may be the only lasting tribute endures in the back of our psyches.  Beyond that, the Greek and Roman Stoics believed in contemplating impermanence as a philosophical tool.  While today we hear a great deal about positive visualization the Stoics advocated a kind of negative visualization.  The Stoics taught seeing things as they are.  That includes their impermanence.  Recognizing that nothing and nobody lasts forever makes us value what is in our lives while it lasts.  It also prepares us more thoroughly to endure inevitable change and loss.  Negative visualization teaches us how to maintain an emotional and philosophical center.  It grants us tranquility while also reminding us to live fully and well.

How would each of us live tomorrow if we really did keep impermanence in mind and recognized truly that it might be our last day?  What would be different in our actions? The Roman emperor and Stoic writer Marcus Aurelius may have said it best

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.  Free yourself from all other distractions.  Yes, you can – if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override your mind, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.  You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?  If you can manage it, that is all even the gods will ask.”

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