Tag Archives: Memento Mori

(Dead) Men In Tights

I vaguely remember that I got my first super-hero comic as a second choice. What I wanted was a Donald Duck or Uncle Scrooge comic, but there weren’t any at the stand that I hadn’t already read. So I half-grudgingly accepted a copy of Spider-Man. 

It was okay. I didn’t fall in love, but it was fun enough to lead me down the path of exploring the superhero comic book genre. 

It’s some years later, and Marvel Comics are ending. In Portugal, anyway. Or maybe it was just in my region? I was a kid, and this is about my memories, so it’s not worth the hassle of researching. I don’t know if it was local or national, I don’t know if it was due to the comics not having enough of an audience to be financially viable, but I do know that my usual comic books stands were to stop getting the Brazilian translations of the comics I so loved. 

In a way, it was pretty cool. They timed it with the storyline where Legion erases the universe. Closure. 

Several years pass. At the end of a Magic The Gathering tournament, my card shark introduces me to the new, shiny, European Portuguese Marvel Comic translations, published by Devir. 

One of the local Magic players is buying one. The first (EU Portuguese) issue of The (something or other) X-Men. It looks beautiful – the form factor is the correct American comic book format, much larger than our smallish Brazilian imports put together with a paper that was barely a grade above toilet paper.

In my excitement, I put my shoulders on top of the counter, trying to get a better look. My shoulder crumples the edge of the mint issue that my player friend had just brought. He immediately panics, frantically trying to smooth it over. 

I had two younger brothers. I was used to everything I owned being destroyed. The concept of “collecting” had never entered my mind before them. I was puzzled but felt bad for the guy, so I offered to buy him a new one and keep his copy for myself. 

Just like that, I was back on Marvel Comics.

Stan Lee, the man whose name adorned the covers and many of the headlines of all these comics, passed away on the 12th of November of 2018. 

I barely read comics now, and when I do, they aren’t Marvel Comics. I feel like I’ve read them all. There’s no closure. Every plot is regurgitated. Every hero who dies valiantly or tragically eventually resurrects, by the grace of some Deus Ex Machina event. 

Maybe someday, we’ll figure out how to bring people back from the dead and old Stan will be resurrected, like so many of the heroes that he had a hand (or two) in bringing to life.

(And yes, I know that the fact that heroes come back from the dead is supposed to be a metaphor, but it happens too bloody often!)

Stan Lee died on that day. Him, and 155519 other people. Probably more, because I doubt non-western countries are as accurate in their statistics. I always think about this whenever someone famous dies.

We like to claim that we are all worth the same. Yet the people who claim that loudest are the first to come out in sorrow for the one famous person who passed away on that particular date, with nary a prayer for all the other poor, unknown souls who shared the same fate.

All people are important. All people have a spark of the Divine within them. This is the basis of many of the systems that make our western society work. But not all people touch us with their work; not all people can be known to us. Stan’s work touched a lot of people in a lot of different ways. I wasn’t a fan of his work for most of my life, but I’m grateful for the brushes I’ve had with the children of his creativity.

He envisioned, imagined, created immortals. I wonder how long will his own immortality last.

Rescuing Philosophy

Philosophy exited my life after I was done with the required readings at school. I had no reason to keep at it. It was taught to me as a duller version of history: this person thought this, that person claimed that. There was no rhyme or reason behind it all. There was no goal in learning it besides getting a better grade and being cultured. The latter was of little interest to a 17-year-old. 

As I went through life, I was as unprepared as anyone else for the trials and tribulations of adulthood – loss, adversity, existential dread, dealing with tyrannical structures, resisting temptation, fear of all the possible futures that end in absolute disaster, etc. 

A friend lost his mother a couple of months back. Most of us are going to go through that. It is an entirely predictable event in most lives. Yet my friend found himself dreadfully unprepared, as are most of us. 

Why are we not taught how to deal with stuff like this in school?

After a lengthy detour into the personal development (or “self-help,” as they dislike being called) industry, I finally came back to philosophy, via Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics. That’s when it dawned on me: there was a place for people to teach us about how to conduct ourselves in the face of life’s challenges. That’s what philosophy class was supposed to be for. 

Someone messed that one up, badly.

That’s part of what I’m trying to do here, with some of these essays. I’m trying to take back philosophy, to rescue it from the classroom and bringing it back to where it belongs: to people’s lives.

Photo Credit: Free Public Domain Illustrations by rawpixel Flickr via Compfight cc

Reminders of Death

I was once told a story about a ritual observed by the generals of the Roman Empire after a victorious campaign. As the general was paraded in full shining regalia through the streets of Rome, waving atop his chariot to the people gathered in celebration, he would have a slave standing beside him, a little further back. This slave would be holding a dagger to his back, concealed from the populace by the general’s cloak. Periodically, he would lean in and whisper:

“Memento Mori.”

Remember death. Recall, oh victorious one, that you are mortal. That your victory – and life – is but a plaything of the Gods, a thin thread ready to be plucked from the wheel of Fate.

I’m doubtful that this story represents, in fact, historical reality. It seems a bit too perfect, a bit too wise. It remains, nonetheless, one of my favorite stories, because it is true in a sense far more critical than the historical truism. It is true because it is useful.

A couple of days ago, a friend’s baby daughter died at one year of age. Upon being told this, my American friends were dismayed from me not using the term “passed away.” In the Portuguese language, we don’t have an equivalent to “passed away,” unless you stretch it. Death is serious business. That girl died. It’s up to the philosophers and theologians to discuss what happens after that.

For the rest of us, what’s left is to take in the full brunt of the experience, to take in the sorrow of the mother as she closed the casket, weeping all along. To feel the father straining in his self-control, knowing full well that he could not crumble at that moment, that his wife needed him as support. To feel the shock of the grandparents, the cousins, the aunts, and uncles, who were deprived of a shining beacon of light, forever snuffed from their lives.

This is a real-life “Memento Mori.” Remember death. It’s for this reason that it is our responsibility – and our privilege – to bear the full burden of suffering and sorrow, with no sugarcoating, of the event. Because, if nothing else, it is a costly reminder that all that we cherish and love is but a gift that can be revoked at any moment, with little to no notice. The grim reality is that, but for the whim of fate, it could have been me, or any of the people reading these lines, standing there, closing the lid of the coffin over the face of a loved one.

It’s pretty cool that the Greeks saw Fate as a tapestry where each individual thread – representing the lives of each of us – was woven into by three seamstresses. It accounts for the element of seemingly randomness and paradox that feels weird if we assume that everything is set in stone by a single mastermind. The seamstresses need not always be of the same mind on how to pursue their craft.

The point of memento mori is not to lead you to depression and despair. The value of these words is in the reminder to cherish what you have, to cherish the people you love while they are here, no matter how imperfect they are and how strained the circumstances of your life might be. To be kind and compassionate and humble in your victories, because even as you parade in all your glory, the specter of death holds a cold dagger to your back. You live and celebrate and enjoy happiness at Fate’s discretion.

If you kiss your loved ones with the full realization that it might be the last time you can do so, then you’ll cherish the moment appropriately. Because one day, it will indeed be the last time. Death will touch either one of you. And while we like to play the “age game” in our minds and tell ourselves that we know who will go first, that is but an illusion, a lie we tell ourselves. Every one of us has their clock ticking, the hourglass steadily emptying, but no-one knows how much sand lies within.

As I can’t afford to own a slave, there are a couple of trinkets that I find useful to have around for the purposes of “Memento Mori.” I’m linking them here because I think they are worth having; I earn no compensation from the people who produce them.

First off, is a Memento Mori medallion. I keep this by my bedside while I sleep, and next to my laptop while I work. You can get it as a necklace too, if you’d like to keep it close to your heart. Then, I have the WeCroak app installed on my phone. This little gem – available for iPhone and Android – sends you the most crucial notification you’re going to get on your phone: one reminding you that you are going to die. It does this five times a day. You get a quote about death thrown in for free, but I find those to be of varying quality, and not necessary anyway – the reminder is the key.

You’re not going to live forever; nor are the people who you love. Act accordingly.