“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
In ancient Rome, exceptional generals would receive a victory honour for their military achievements. The general would wear royal purple and gold, and ride in a four-horse chariot in a parade through the city. His spoils and captives would precede him and his armies would follow behind him. A companion or slave would ride in the general’s chariot and whisper the reminder, “Memento mori”.
The Latin phrase ‘memento mori’ conveyed a humbling reminder:“Remember that you have to die.” This reminder was so powerful because in the midst of triumphant achievement, the focus of the parade – the general himself – would recognise how transient his time on earth was. He would realise that none of the pleasures or victories before him would follow him to the grave. He would be sobered by the understanding that all things come to their end in time. And these would guard him against pride, against delusions of grandeur, against folly from self-centredness.
But what about us today, more than two millennia on? How do our thoughts about mortality affect our lives?
Many youths today are familiar with the idea of #YOLO – “you only live once”. One of the most infamous uses of the hashtag was when 21-year-old rap artist Ervin McKinness died in a car accident in late 2012. The final message from his Twitter account included that #YOLO hashtag and was an expletive-laden boast about being drunk and drifting corners at almost 200 km/h. Less than an hour later, the driver of the car ran a red light, lost control and crashed. Four passengers were pronounced dead at the scene and a fifth later died in hospital.
Both ‘memento mori’ and ‘#YOLO’ convey the same truth that life does not last forever. But while the former is a sobering and humbling reminder against hubris, the latter seems to encourage pride and glorify the pleasures of one’s immediate gratification. “You only live once… so just do it! Live for today, because we never know what comes tomorrow!”
It is possible that the private whispering of ‘memento mori’ is vastly removed from the public trumpeting of ‘#YOLO’ which brings much attention. But the more fundamental issue is our understanding and interpretation of human mortality. Where this reminder served to impart humility to one who was elevated two millennia ago, it appears now to clothe the average man with ‘achievement’ in doing something that others would ordinarily not.
What does the Bible then say about our perspective towards mortality?
In Psalm 144:3-4 (“Lord, what are human beings that you care for them, mere mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a fleeting shadow”), the comparison of man’s days to God’s eternity shows the extent of humility that man should have before Him. It also reassures us that even though man is so insignificant compared to God, He still takes notice of us and cares for us.
“Lord, what are human beings that you care for them, mere mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a fleeting shadow.”
A ‘memento mori’ is made in James 4:14 (“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes”) and the verse’s context reminds the reader of the uncertainty and brevity of life. Just as human life is short and temporal, so too are the things of this earth. Therefore we should not chase after things that do not last, but instead be humbled and seek to understand God’s will in order to make our lives count in a meaningful way.
And an instructive prayer can be found in Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” It shows that recognising our mortality should not spur us towards rash actions or the gratification of self-desire. Instead, we should be wise in our stewardship of our life and our time, in finding the right balance among reflection on the past, diligent work in the present, and resisting procrastination or futile speculation about the future. Recognising the inevitability of death should not lead us to irrational terror but instead remind us to focus not on things transient but on things eternal.
As we enter another new year, let us remember the fragility of life and be grateful for what we have. And let us remember the brevity of life so that we may use it for meaningful purpose. Let us not view mortality with reckless self-indulgence, but instead with mature humility, so that we consciously hold ourselves to a view that is not self-centred, that instils humility not hubris, that cultivates discipline not despair, and that encourages restraint not rashness.
“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
Picture by Heartland Arts/Bigstock.com
Chye Shu Yi worships at Methodist Church of the Incarnation.