The one about last days

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I am Rob. You are here. Sit back. Relax. Let’s do this.

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The year is 2015. It’s probably mid-October. I’m entering the boarding gate for a flight back to London. I have flown more this year than the previous five years combined, by virtue of having moved countries. The feeling, though, is that I’ve left behind friends, family and a relationship of nearly a decade, with who I know is the love of my life.

All of those things are still alive and powerful, yet now there’s a battle of uncertainty that constantly splits me. And the more time passes and the closer I get to my new ‘home’ (which doesn’t yet quite feel like it), the more split I feel. Not because I wish I hadn’t decided to go. But because it was becoming unclear whether I’d prefer the pain of going, or the pain of staying. I was anxious and depressed, in turns, all the time, and with no end in sight.

This was one of the major triggers to double, triple, quadruple down on philosophy.

Current events were too painful, but perhaps perspectives on past events – the further back, the better – could be a bit less so. At around this time, I embraced more aspects of Stoic philosophy, partly because I was living under the illusion that I could reason my way out of all that pain. And, like the Stoics do, I spent a huge portion of time thinking about death. Especially as I entered a plane yet again, for the n-th time.

Death is something we don’t like to think about, because it’s a terrible reminder that sooner or later we all meet it. And yet, over the years I’ve gained a habit to ask myself, every time I enter a plane: what would happen if we crashed and that was it? What would my last minutes have felt like? The weird part is, when I do this, sometimes – not always, but sometimes –, my anxious mind doesn’t feel so anxious anymore. For a second, I often feel oddly calm. Because I was forced, by a brutally simple question, to take an honest look at all the things I was thankful for, and to realise the decisions I’d made, were made for the long term. And that felt like the right thing to do.

I’ve had depressive and anxious episodes since I can remember, though I’ve never been suicidal. And yet, death has become a good moral companion, and a powerful lens through which I can look at each day. Because I am convinced that the best way to live and appreciate a good life is to be acutely aware that one day it’s all going to be over. Or, to quote Marcus Aurelius, I started trying to take these words to heart:

“Let each thing you would do, say, or intend, be like that of a dying person.”

I can’t say I do this consistently well, but it’s something I try to remember often. I’m not a saint, nor do I pretend to be. I’m sure not even the Stoics behaved this purely every single day, but as far as moral aspirations go, it’s a good reminder to have. These days, I seem to think about it on a semi-daily basis. To be clear: I am fine. But as we go through this period of collective grief, and are being forced to re-evaluate what we assign value to, the question comes back over and over and over again.

How would I feel if today was my last day?

This is hard to answer, because we all have ambitions and needs that are never quite fully met. Life is one big FOMO exercise, and loss aversion is often more powerful than whatever thing we might gain. This double existential whammy makes it hard to imagine that one day, all of this will be over for us. But, in key moments of clarity, this same question can help us look inwards and appreciate all the things we’ve achieved, including the relationships we’ve cultivated, and quite brutally helps filter what we know instinctively matters, from what doesn’t.

Death is the great signifier of life, precisely because it’s so drastic and dramatic and inevitable and… permanent. We appreciate rare things because we know they’re finite.

As we continue stuck in our physical surroundings, the mind wanders too easily into the things that we wish we didn’t have as much time to think about. But I see more and more people reflecting on, and embracing, the things that are less permanent in life, and yet far more important. It’s a cliché to say that we may be questioning our own materialistic needs, but I also have a funny feeling that many of us are now trying to make a mental list of which new habits or objects of appreciation (which, of course, don’t have to be objects themselves) are worth retaining after the dust settles a bit.

Death is a very difficult subject, but compared to five years ago I see it as less of an enemy, and more of a counter-part to everything that I consider valuable. Most things worth living for, inevitably, fall apart and fade away. But what a wonderful thing to have been able to edify something in the first place, and kick some ass along the way. It’s a bit like knowing when to retire on a high, instead of withering along in eternal comebacks until you become a shadow of your former self. In case of doubt, don’t be like The Scorpions. I hope my last day is many, many, many days from now, but until then, I also hope Miss Death helps remind me what’s truly worth living for.

Stay safe. Stay sane. Send replies, I like hearing from you. 😘

Rob

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