A lot of people enjoy hating Nickelback. Me, I’m a fan. One, they’re Canadian. Patriotism demands my support. Two, what’s to dislike? They create light, fluffy, danceable, and occasionally deep rock and roll. I crank the radio when Rock Star comes on and I enjoy the bouncy, pro-marijuana strains of This Afternoon.
Then there’s If Today Was Your Last Day.
If today was your last day
And tomorrow was too late
Could you say goodbye to yesterday?
Would you live each moment like your last?
Leave old pictures in the past
Donate every dime you have?
If today was your last day.
The lyrics echo the memento mori practice you find in Stoicism. Remember death. The stoics made it part of their daily routine. They thought it important to remember your finite and mortal status. Doing so helps with focus. It helps you live in the now and pay attention only to the things you can control.
My depressive disorder guarantees I think about death on a fairly regular basis. That’s probably not what the Stoics meant. Depression-fueled thoughts about death are stark, overwhelming, and paralyzing; they rarely lead to positive action, the opposite of the Stoic intent.
Memento mori is meant to inspire not discourage. It’s meant to make you embrace life now in the face of an indeterminate future.
Friends often ask me, “What if today was your last day”? Unfortunately, they’re not seeking a philosophical dialogue. The question comes up when they’re trying to guilt me into social behaviour I’m trying to reject. It usually involves alcohol and a great many people and while I don’t mind the former, the latter can be a deal breaker depending on my mental health status. They admonish me to seize the day but, in these instances, “seizing” looks a lot like getting stupid or forcing myself to do something I won’t enjoy. I’m not opposed to stupid occasionally, but I’m not inclined as often as they wish.
The mindset behind their argument is this: if today was your last day, shouldn’t you want to go crazy and party like it’s 1999? Ensure that if you do die, you get to go out with a bang. “Seize the day” has been co-opted; the intent obscured. It’s not meant to describe going wild; that’s not the philosophy underpinning memento mori or carpe diem at all.
It doesn’t mean burn down the house. Nickelback is closer: “live each moment like your last.”
Live well. Live well in each moment. Because you never know. That’s why remembering – not obsessing about – our mortality is a good thing. It reminds us the clock is ticking and we have no idea when the alarm is set to sound.
For me, living well is trying to live a good life. A philosophically, empirically good life. It’s trying to be wise, trying to be brave, trying to be courageous, and trying to be just. It’s being kind and generous. It’s being curious and open-minded. It’s being non-judgmental (I’m trying). It’s letting the people in my life know I care about them.
It’s about trying to make my presence on this planet in my sphere of influence mean something while I’m here. Because we all die. Within a generation, most of us won’t even be a memory. We’ll be nothing more than forgotten dust. Realizing our transitoriness opens us up to the truth that the important part of life is now.
Remember death. Try to live a life that’s worthwhile.
What if today was your last day?