“You could leave this life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think”

Marcus Aurelius

I was at an exhibition in the Royal Scottish Academy last week while there, saw a very powerful work. It consisted of nine black glass panels, each of which had the picture of a smartphone engraved on it. On the screen of each smartphone was a skull. Below the panels was an old iPhone with a skull engraved on the screen and the title of the work “Memento Mori”. Remember that you will die.

Like all the best art, this got me thinking and has stuck with me in the week since I viewed the work. Imagine how we would act if, every hour on the hour, our phones stopped what they were doing and told us that we were mortal.

Time is the most precious thing that we own. Yet it is the one thing that we treat often with total indifference, spending it like it was an infinite resource. Hours are whiled away doing nothing. Plans put off. Meetings with friends postponed.

Yet there is nothing that I can do to stop the passage of time. My life on this Earth is finite and limited. Furthermore, I have no real control over when I might leave this life nor knowledge of when that might happen. I could walk out of the Starbucks that I’m sitting in and be hit by a car. Or I could live to 100 before succumbing.

Should I spend what limited and unknown time I have in pointless arguments that never really reach a conclusion or browsing the internet for no purpose other than demanding that someone entertain me? Should I put off contacting friends and family? Should I say yes to every call on my time, handing over control to others?

“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself and in no instance bypass the discriminations of reason? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him? You are no longer a boy, but a full-grown man. If you are careless and lazy now and keep putting things off and always deferring the day after which you will attend to yourself, you will not notice that you are making no progress, but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary.”


Memento Mori is a call to action. If I can hold that thought in my mind then I can follow Marcus Aurelius’ command to let it determine my every thought, word and deed.

I can spend my time following my passions, doing the things that I enjoy and spending my time with those I care about.

And as Epictetus says, I can this day start the process of self-improvement. In each moment I can make a conscious choice to spend my time in a way that improves me or the world around me. Perfection is not an end goal but a journey, a moment by moment process of choices that move towards a better me.

And then, by living this way, I can leave this life at the moment that fate appoints satisfied that I did my best.