“Don’t you forget about dying, don’t you forget about your friend Death, don’t you forget that you will die.” – Ghost, Pro Memoria.
Today is Ash Wednesday in the Catholic tradition. While I have long since left that religion behind, I acknowledge its influence, for good and ill, on my perception. Ash Wednesday is one of the practices of that faith I still respect. While it may seem like a weird thing to do, from an outsider vantage point, there’s a good reason why Catholics line up to have ashes smeared on their foreheads and be told “thou art dust and to dust you shall return”. The inimitable Tadhg, over at Tadhg Talks, has an excellent post on the meaning of this ritual.
The reason I still respect this practice is that it focuses the mind on death. It is an enacted Memento Mori, actively remembering that you will die. Paganism can so often focus on life and light and reincarnation that the finality of death can sometimes be forgotten, and it shouldn’t be.
This may seem morbid, but as the Death Positivity movement shows us, open and honest engagement with death can make a profound difference to how we live our lives.
Death reminds us that our quotidian woes are, really, quite small. We are, really, quite small. We are impermanent fragments of the universe made conscious for a brief flicker of time.
Recognising this and accepting this does not mean resignation to our fate, nor does it mean wanting to die. It means simply understanding that our time is limited, so we’d better get on with living while we can.
We have what, 80 years, if we’re lucky? And that can be cut short at any moment. My own recent health scare brought that fact home to me with startling immediacy.
How much of the time that we have do we spend waiting for a perfect moment?
I will get fit, sometime. I will apply for that job, when it’s right. I will move to a new city, write that book, learn that language, change my gender, take that course, do that thing…
…at some point.
And so we wait. For what? The clouds to part, a ray of brilliant light to descend and a voice celestial call out “Now is your Anointed Time”?
That ain’t going to happen.
Recognising the impermanence of life means recognising that this waiting for a perfect tomorrow that will never come is a waste. More than that, it’s a sacrilege. Our lives are precious gifts no matter who or what you believe gave them to us. And to waste them by not living is a travesty.
I know because I speak from experience. I think about things, I don’t do them. I think, and think, and think. Paralysis by analysis. If the Socratic dictum is true that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, then so is the inverse:
The unlived life is not worth examining.
There is no perfect moment. There is this moment.
And then it’s gone.
So what is the thing you want, no – need, to do with your life? Who is the person you need to be?
What song is your soul trying to sing?
I have spent years stifling that song because it is out of tune with what I thought the world expected, demanded, of me. But it needs to be sung and my heart breaks with the intensity of it.
We create our own perfect moment. The Secret is harmful new-age guff, but it’s at least partly true that we do (to a limited extent) create our own reality. We can sit around and wait for life to happen to us, or we can go out and make life happen for us.
Remember thou art dust.
We will all die.
Let’s make damn sure that we have lived first.