Carpe Diem: Dancing with Death

Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Even as we speak, envious time flies past: harvest the day and leave as little as possible for tomorrow.

Horace, Ode XI (65-8BC)

I’m currently reading Carpe Diem Regained by Roman Krznaric (incidentally, a book funded by Unbound – it is possible!) and this blog post is inspired by the tools and techniques he explores in the second chapter: Dancing with Death.

The ancient philosophy espoused by Horace in the first century before Christ is one of the most ubiquitous in modern culture, but its ubiquity disguises how little any of us actually think about what it would really mean to live by.

One of the most salient philosophical facets of carpe diem is its relationship to our mortality. In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, my old friend Albert Camus advocated “most living”, which can be seen as a modern twist on Horace’s carpe diem. In one of his notebooks, Camus wrote:

Come to terms with death. Thereafter anything is possible.

So Roman Krznaric takes us on a tour of philosophical techniques, both ancient and modern, that surprise us with awareness of our own mortality, and in so doing promise a more vibrant living. He calls them “death tasters” and I will summarise them here.

1. Memento mori: remember that you will die. Surround yourself with unmistakeable reminders of your mortality, like a human skull on your desk.

2. Join a Death Café or have Death Over Dinner. Convivial places to talk about life and death over tea and cake. There’s a Guardian write up if you want to know more.

3. Make like the Mexican Day of the Dead and conduct an all-night vigil by a relative’s graveside. Or a stranger’s. What did they mean to you? What did they mean to themselves? Did they ever think they were going to die? What were their final emotions, their final thoughts, regrets, beliefs and loves?

4. Follow the Roman Stoics and live life as if it were your last. This is a bit of risky one, philosophically speaking, but the Stoics weren’t advocating end-of-the-world Hedonism. (But if you think you could do with a dose, be my guest.)

The perfection of moral character consists in this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: 7.40

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. … There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living.

Seneca the Younger, On the Shortness of Life: i, vii

5. Live life as if it were your first. As Roman says: “Perhaps this would fill us with a profound sense of awe and wonder at the world … We might make more effort to appreciate the warmth of the sun on our skin or a kind gesture from a stranger.”

6. Live life as if you had only 6 months left. This might encourage you to think about what you’ll be leaving behind: for want of a better word, your legacy. Roman recommends Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru (To Live). “Confronting our mortality, as [the film’s protagonist] Kanji Watanabe did, can wake us from our existential slumber, help us reassess our priorities, and spur us to seize the day and make something more of our lives.”

7. “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.” This brutally and bafflingly wise piece of advice comes from Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl. It’s particularly good for putting an existential wedge between you and your more base instinctive reactions. “[W]hatever you are about to do, imagine you are probably going to make the wrong choice and regret it, so make sure you get it right this time.”

8. Follow Nietzsche’s “formula for greatness”: the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Imagine every action you take today you are condemned to repeat for eternity. Would you really spend another day in a job you hate, another evening bickering with your partner or another minute watching Bargain Hunt if you knew you’d have to spend eternity doing the same?

This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence … The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Josefine Nauckhoff

Eternity is a long time to spend listening to David Dickinson. See also Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

9. Recognise the ephemeral nature of life and we live in a universe of impermanence. Roman quotes Japaneses Buddhist monk Kamo no Chomei, born in 1153:

The current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, never stays the same for long. So, too, it is with the people and dwellings of the world.

Hojoki (An Account of My Hut)

It’s hard to hold too tightly to irrelevancies like the minor fluctuations of material wealth, petty squabbles and family resentments, or poor traffic etiquette when we confront the fleeting nature of our lives. For Roman, this awareness “suggests not just that our own lives are transient, but that they are composed of an infinite number of “little deaths” or moments that pass into nothingness.”

10. Be like Bowie and live a thousand lives. If every moment is a little death, then in every moment we have a chance for rebirth, or reinvention at least. David Bowie was famous for birthing multiple stage personas, reincarnating “himself” every few years to refresh his own creative energies. But there’s no reason why we can’t do that in our own, less star-struck lives. Albert Camus argues similarly for the role of the Actor as one way of most living in The Myth of Sisyphus: the actor compresses a whole life into one evening performance, and will live many thousands of such lives in the span of just one. Roman describes it thus: “The philosophy of little deaths can galvanise us to seize the moment, put an old role behind us, and invent ourselves anew.”

11. Imagine yourself on your deathbed. How do you feel looking back at your life? Are you proud of your achievements? Did you suck the marrow from life? Or are you filled with regret? If you’re not sure, then read this list of the most common regrets of the dying, by palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

12. Imagine yourself at the end of your life and write your own obituary, or write two: one “real” and one ideal.

13. Imagine your own funeral and the eulogies that people might deliver. What do they say about you?

14. Draw a straight line on a piece of paper: your birth at one end and your death at another. Put an X to indicate where you are now on your lifeline. Meditate on this for five minutes.

15. Imagine yourself at a dinner party in the afterlife. This thought experiment is inspired by neuroscientist David Eagleman and Roman’s set up is worth quoting almost in full:

Imagine yourself at a dinner party in the afterlife. Also present are all the other ‘yous’ who you could have been if you had made different choices. … You look around at these alternative selves. … [W]hich of them are you curious to meet and talk to? Which would you rather avoid? Which do you envy? And are there any of these many yous whom you would rather be – or become?

This little game has particular power because these other people are imaginable versions of you: by definition you could be or become these people. It’s not like you’re looking over at JK Rowling or Charles Darwin or Silvio Berlusconi and enviously wishing you could be them. No – you’re envious of your own imaginable self. So all you have to do now is imagine what “they” did to become that person, and therefore what you need to do to become more like… yourself.


Huge thanks to Roman Krznaric for carping his diem and collecting these memento mori for us all to enjoy. I think “enjoy” is the right word…

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