When I was 17 or 18 years old, one day I sat down and drew a line on a piece of paper. I don’t remember why I did so, but it turned out to be a special moment.
At the beginning of the line was a dot, with another about a quarter of the way along. The dot at the end of the line was what was most important. From that moment my life was irrevocably changed, and I believe all the Roman Stoics would have been pleased, for the shift in perspective was for the better, and pretty profound for a kid working a part-time job to pay for college.
After the drawing of that line with three dots, things that had seemed important no longer mattered, and things I had come to take for granted became vitally important.
It was why, instead of going to work for a Fortune 500 company after graduating from a university where they let Hedera grow up the walls, I decided to pursue music; and then manage a retreat center for four years with almost no pay; and work with canines; and write. That line with three dots is why I chose to be a stay-at-home father.
What was so special about that line with three dots?
Take a look.
Birth Current year Death
We all have an intellectual understanding of the fact that everyone who lives will eventually die. But in U.S. culture, people act as if death doesn’t exist. Not really.
Yes, we see death in movies, video games, and television all the time. But when conveyed through digital media entertainment, we know it is not real.
Or if we are informed of actual death through the news, the thought arises, “Yeah, that only happens to some people. Sometimes.”
The thing is, as the great 20th century philosopher Henry Rollins once sang, “Sometimes happens all the time.”
We all have an end. But what’s worse than not thinking about it?
Thinking about it, but assuming it is a long, long, loooooong way off, and that there’s no sense of urgency regarding it.
To paraphrase something I once read by Stephen King, most people expect to die in their sleep, in their eighties, after a fine meal, a bottle of vintage wine, and excellent sex with someone half their age. Yet, no one wants to accept the possibility that tomorrow, your upper chest cavity will be crushed by the engine block of a Mack truck, as crankcase oil slowly drips onto your forehead, because some guy crashed into you, because he had a few too many beers immediately prior to putting the keys into his ignition.
In western culture, everyone is supposed to be young, with a fit body, and beautiful teeth, and will live forever.
But for those with seven or eight decades on this planet?
Get thee to a retirement community in Arizona or Florida! We don’t want to see you if you can’t keep up appearances, and especially because you are reminders of our own, very real, mortality.
According to the ancient Roman Stoics though, since aging and death are the natural outcome of birth, they should not be ignored or candy-coated with childish, superstitious beliefs.
Reason demands that we look death square in the face and say, “I know you’ll reach me, and I don’t know when.”
This is not a morbid fascination, or a reason to wear black all the time and become a nihilist. And it is definitely not a call for the other end of the spectrum, hedonism (“I’m going to die, so in the meantime, I may as well enjoy heroin!”)
Contemplating, not worrying over, one’s death provides an added motivation for having a good life: days above ground and the number of one’s heartbeats are in limited supply. Don’t squander them.
Drawing that line with three dots might seem exceptionally simple, but it was valuable. For, not only was it an acknowledgment of my own death, but the deaths of people I love, therefore giving the concept much more reality, and always adding a more compassionate perspective when interacting with others.
Because of drawing that line with three dots in my late teens, I can look back over large swaths of my life and know that they were good, and that when I’m actually dying, I’ll be prepared, whether it is when I’m in my eighties, or tomorrow.
Acta Non Verba: Draw your own timeline with three dots. Think on it. Carry it in your pocket on a piece of paper, or make it the lock-screen of your smartphone. Let its continual presence be a reminder of what is, and isn’t, truly important in life.
Don’t dread death or pain; dread the fear of death or pain. – Epictetus
By facing the realities of death, infirmity, loss, and disappointment, you free yourself of illusions and false hopes and you avoid miserable, envious thoughts – Epictetus
Act, speak, and think like a man ready to depart this life in the next breath. – Marcus Aurelius
Considered by itself, stripped by reason of all the superstitions surrounding it, death is just another work of nature—and only a small child fears works of nature. – Marcus Aurelius
…if you regard your last day, not as punishment, but as, so to speak, a law of nature, then you will have cast out from your breast the fear of death and the fear of nothing else will dare enter there. – Seneca
Stephen Sumner is a writer with over three decades experience studying what it means to have a good life. He has a BS in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. His favorite pastimes include reading, fountain pens, and growing insanely hot peppers. Click here to follow him on Twitter.
Original, non-meme image from Edu Lauton via Unsplash.com.