Since ancient times, all across the world, it’s been understood that we should always be aware of death. Socrates said that proper philosopher is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”
Early Buddhist texts use the term maranasati, which translates as ‘remember death.’
Some Muslim Sufis are known as the “people of the graves” for their practice of visiting graveyards to ponder death, as Mohammad once advised.
The ancient Egyptians, well known for their obsession with death, had a custom where, during festivities, they would bring out a skeleton and cheer to themselves, “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”
Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe developed an entire genre of artwork dedicated to memento mori, literally remembering death.
To my mind, the most famous and articulate proponents of this idea were the Stoics, a Greco-Roman school of philosophy that emerged in the third century B.C.E. In his private journal, known as the Meditations, the Roman philosopher king Marcus Aurelius advised to himself that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” The famed Roman statesman and orator Seneca said that we should go to bed thinking “You may not wake up tomorrow” and start the day thinking “You may not sleep again”. He also recommended that we
“… prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
All this probably sounds pretty morbid and depressing, not to mention counterintuitive: Thinking about death all the time is no way to live, and would probably paralyze us with fear. But as another famous Stoic, Epictetus, explained:
Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible—by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.
Extrapolating from this, some modern Stoics advise that we remember that the people we fight with will die; the strangers tick us off on the road will die; that every time we say bye to a loved one, we keep in mind they may die before we see or speak with them again.
Again, the point isn’t to be depressed, despairing, or even nihilistic, but to allow us to put things in perspective and value each finite second we have. The people we hate will end up just like us one day, which both humanizes them and reminds us not to waste precious little time occupied by them. The people we love will end up the same way, so better that we make the most of our time and fill it with happiness.
Of course, all this is easier said than done: It’s why we’re still trying to keep this advice thousands of years later.