Social philosopher Roman Krznaric keeps a set of “death dice” on his desk. On each side is a thought experiment about mortality.
Roll them and they will tell you, alternately, to “live this day as if it was your last”, “live as if you had six months left”, “live as if you want your life to recur forever”.
Roman describes the death dice as a modern memento mori - a visual reminder that you too will die. To Roman it is a nudge to make choices, to live with passion and intention and not waste the freedom we have.
Confronting death isn’t something we commonly do. Like many people, I am afraid of death to the point of total avoidance. I recoil at images of death or any talk of “the end”. But confronting our own mortality is the most forceful reminder of the opportunities and freedom we have in the present.
A vital part of living purposefully is about making meaningful choices, being aware of our own freedom and using it to best effect in the present. To Roman, “We are, choice-making creatures. I choose, therefore I am”.
The freedom of now
We have more freedom than ever to choose how we live. Travel is more accessible than at any point in history. There are manifold opportunities for education, self-development, exploration and change. Societal norms in much of the west have softened, allowing more freedom and flexibility in work, relationships, and social settings.
But the question Roman asks is whether we are using our burgeoning freedom to best effect.
The freedom we have can be overwhelming -in a world where there are increasing multitudes of options, how do you decide?
According to Roman, the point is not so much what we choose, but that we choose. That we use the agency we have to live deliberately. His opinion echoes Viktor Frankl on the last freedom of man: the power to choose one’s own attitude.
The point of thinking about death is to get past our own sense of complacency. We have become accustomed to having so much choice that we are almost numb to it. Roman argues that our sense of freedom has been hijacked by a consumer society: “Just Do It has become Just Buy It”. Multiple media sources, competing brands and advertisements vie for our attention and consume our energy.
In this context it’s easy to loose our grip on what is most important in life.
Remembering the nearness of death is a powerful antidote to a world of overwhelming choice and possibility. The thought of your own death and all that you might regret at the end of your life focuses your decisions in the present. A daily death reminder is a way to avoid surrendering your life choices.
As Roman describes in his book Carpe Diem Regained:
“At the end of each day we might look back and ask ourselves: Was I fully aware of the choices I made –at home, at work, as a parent, as a friend, as a citizen? We can then reflect on what these choices tell us about our values and priorities. Eventually we may come to recognise that carpe diem calls on us not to live each day as if it were our last, but to live each day as if we are what we choose, and as if each of our choices were a matter of consequence.”
What does this change?
As I see it, finding a sense of purpose in life and work is about living with intention. Not being swept by the currents around you or the things that others would like you to do, but being clear on who you are, what you strive for and acting on it at every opportunity (though I don’t always succeed at this).
Since talking with Roman the issue of death as a reminder has stuck with me - possibly because of my death-fears, but also in spite of them. Carpe Diem Regained emphases both the extent of our freedom and the importance of staying conscious of it.
Today I imagined several different ‘death scenarios’ based on four different career paths I could take. I imagined how I would feel about each one as I came to the end of my life and the results weren’t entirely what I expected. The time spent with family and friends, on meaningful relationships and closeness became the most important. It wasn’t the thoughts of success but of connection with others that most stood out. It made me question career paths that involve many fleeting connections at the expense of fewer, deeper ones.
When I interviewed Miles the blind adventurer he told me: “At the end of my life, what will concern me are not the things that I’ve failed at, but the things I’ve failed to try.”
If you imagine yourself at the end of your life, what are the possible scenarios? If you allow yourself to imagine each one in turn, how do you feel about them?
Keep death in your thoughts.
Read more about Carpe Diem Regained by Roman Krznaric.