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.

Persona 5 and the Integration of the Shadow

Persona 5 is about many things. One of them is growing up. 

The game’s teenage heroes are struggling to grow up in an oppressive, strict society. The surrounding adults view them as either a commodity or a nuisance. The game reflects this through its story. The common bond between the characters is that all them were exploited by adults in some fashion.

But their society also has some things that they value and produces a lot of things that they like. A lot of time spent playing Persona is spent enjoying the products of the very society that oppresses the characters.  

So there’s an unspoken dichotomy here. The characters want things to change, but they don’t want to tear down society. They don’t want to remake the world, they want to course-correct what they perceive as a corrupt system.

The problem they face is that they are powerless kids. They can’t do anything to fight the injustice around them. Until they gain their “powers.” In the game, this is represented by a scene where – pushed to their limits – the characters tear a mask from their face. This scene is a grisly one –  skin breaks, and their faces bleed. 

Doing this, they unleash their magical alter-ego. This being can actually face up to the psychological tyranny of the adults. 

(Most of the action in the game happens inside people’s subconscious, for reasons that are worth exploring in a different essay.)

This is a powerful representation of the Jungian concept of the unleashing and taming of the inner shadow. It goes something like this:

You stop being a defenseless child once you recognize that there’s something inside of you that can hurt others. And you figure out that the only thing preventing that beast from wreaking havoc in the world is your own sense of morals and willpower. 

persona-5-arsene
Joker’s alter-ego is Arséne, named after the famous thief. There’s a lot to unpack here – the Joker is a wildcard, and the Joker is also the one who brings change, mythologically. Persona 5 is rich in meaning.

If you believe that there’s only goodness and innocence inside of you – as the Persona kids did – then you’re a sheep. A sheep doesn’t have the option to be good or evil – it’s just a damn sheep! 

But if you recognize that there’s a shadow within you… If you understand your potential for rage and murder and destruction and the general causing of suffering, then now, you have a choice! From this choice is born the concept of good and evil. You can’t have morals without options.

And now that you recognize that you have a choice, you aren’t a defenseless child anymore. You can visit suffering upon others. You are an adult. You can be a good one, or you can be an oppressive tyrant like the ones that you’ve rallied against – that’s up to you. But you have the option; by recognizing the darkness inside, you’ve grown up.

Partly. 

There’s another part to growing up that’s beautifully portrayed in Persona 5. That’s sacrificing the unlimited potential of childhood for the focused realization of adulthood. This is what helps solve the dilemma that the characters face between the rigidity but usefulness of their society, and their own aspirations of individuality. But that’s yet another essay. 

The reason that I wanted to focus on this part first is that I see too many “adults” every day that never tore the mask off. They walk around, lamenting their lives and claiming they are “good,” but they aren’t. They are wolves without teeth.

Don’t be that way. Don’t be the person that never learned to stand up for his or herself because “that’s not the kind of person that I am.” Don’t be a child. Tear off that mask – find out what’s dangerous, lurking inside. And once you find it, don’t let it hurt anyone. Only then can you truly say that you are “good.”

The mere knowledge of the beast will help you stand up to whatever life throws at you.

We Grind For Things We Don’t Need, To Impress People Who Aren’t Looking

It’s August, and I’ve been playing a lot of Destiny 2. I’m playing it with my brother – ostensibly, to have fun. But that’s not the full story. 

I mean, we could have done it any time, but we didn’t. We started playing at the beginning of the month, and why? Because the “Solstice of Heroes” event is happening. With it comes the time-limited chance to get exclusive goodies. By exclusive goodies, I mean shiny suits of armor to doll up our space-knights.

Destiny 2 Warlock Solstice Armor
Not actual Solstice of Heroes armor, but looks cool enough.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this is so appealing. There’s this quote that strikes true:

“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” 

The author is Dave Ramsey, and I’ve never read his financial fitness book (Sorry, Dave!) but I like the quote. 

That’s the silly thing about these “get your armor/pokemon/potted plant while you can” games. The stuff you get is just for show. 

In Destiny 2’s case, the armor is partly a catch-up mechanism: it’s powerful, and it will prepare you to take on the expansion (due right after the event ends). But I’m also sure that any utility will be superseded by the rewards you get after playing the expansion for a couple of afternoons. So what’s left?

You’re left with a badge of “I was there, I did this.” And, fair enough, to get the armor, you do need to complete most of the game’s content – the exception being a couple of 6-person raids. It’s a neat way for Bungie to nudge you into experiencing the most of the game before the expansion hits.

So, who is the “badge” for, exactly? It’s only once in a blue moon that I actually pay attention to what other players are wearing. Everything kind of blurs in the moment of actual playing of the game. 

In the end, the person who enjoys the way my character looks like the most is… Me. But again, we’re talking about a 1st-person shooter game. I don’t get to see my character 90% of the time! So the utility of investing so much time in playing the game is limited to enjoying my character in the inventory screen, or in the brief character vignettes before each PvP match. 

(Those are cool, by the way – more games should do them, and Bungie should add more flavor to them.)

destiny pvp poses
All your hard work pays off the moment you get to look cool while slamming a banner on the ground.

The same is true for one of my all-time favorite games, too. For some people, World of Warcraft is all about the collecting. There are hundreds of pets and mounts to collect and thousands of pieces of armor. I can’t say I haven’t spent my fair share of hours collecting outfits, there. And yet again, after thousands of hours of playtime, I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions where other players remarked on my character’s outfit, and vice-versa.

And if in Destiny you could say that the Solstice armor could get you up to speed for the expansion, in World of Warcraft the exercise is almost always cosmetic. After a very easily-reached threshold, upgrades are minor and only matter in the most hardcore of end-game activities.

We grind for things we don’t need, to impress people who aren’t looking.

Or do we?

Back to the point about doing these things for myself. Playing these games is enjoyable. You can reach a point where you’re just mechanically repeating the same action like the virtual version of an industrial revolution factory worker, sure. But I find that it rarely happens these days. The games have gotten smarter than that, the gameplay loops are more varied and enjoyable.

The cosmetic items are like a goal of a sort, something to aim for. There’s something intrinsically satisfying about striving for something. Ultimate utility be damned! That’s part of the appeal of video games. Aiming for stuff in real life can be more satisfying, but it also usually takes longer. You’re very rarely in a position where you can make meaningful progress toward life-goals in a couple of afternoons. But you can get the quick hit of satisfaction from a job well done and goals reached in a weekend, playing a video game.

There’s both a danger and a utility there. 

The danger: that you feel that that is enough. That it’s not worth pursuing more than what’s necessary to survive in real-life because you can get the satisfaction that comes from achievement more quickly and with less stress in a video game.

The utility: that video games addict you to work and achievement. That you are able to use those short bursts of video game goodness to inspire you and generate enthusiasm for setting and working toward real-life goals. They can help cultivate the right mindset: set the goal, grind towards it, re-evaluate goal & approach, repeat. A gamer has the raw material to develop the mentality of a doer, a person who makes things happen. That’s a life-skill.

And let’s face it, who should you want to impress in your life? Just the one person: you. Even if you’re usually going about your life in first-person.

Writer. Podcaster. Marketer. Dental Surgeon. Gamer.