Tag Archives: Steve Jobs

Memento Mori

Memento Mori mosaic from excavations in the convent of San Gregorio, Via Appia, Rome, Italy

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”
– Steve Jobs

Free soloing is by all measures a contentious practice. Climbing without ropes at a height guaranteed to be lethal stirs up all manner of controversy amongst climbers and flatlanders alike. The main charge leveled against the free-soloist is that of irresponsibility. Specific critiques include:

  • The soloist does not really understand what he is risking. Here is the assumption that most soloists can’t truly feel or understand how close they come to death. The common image is of a person who is brave as long as his illusion of invulnerability goes unchallenged, but as soon as this bubble is burst, a fear and regret will take hold. If only they really understood the risk, they would not solo. (See the comments on this thread as an example)
  • The soloist is suicidal or otherwise lacks respect for his own life. In this light, soloing is cast as an act of sadness, desperation, or (most condemnably) selfishness, disregard for the living who will be left behind to mourn.
  • The soloist makes trouble for the rest of us. If a climber gets stuck or falls to his death, search and rescue professionals will be dispatched. In the course of their job, it is possible that they also will be injured or killed, and even if they escape unharmed, just think of the financial cost! (An example here)
  • The soloist sets a bad example. For the impressionable of all ages among us, the soloist (and the media enamored of such feats) offers a dangerous message: climbing sans protection is the purest form of the art, the most exciting, and the most impressive. The soloist’s actions, especially high-profile climbers like  Alex Honnold, John Bachar, Peter Croft, Michael Reardon, Dan Osman, etc., entice others less skilled to give it a shot, often without a good understanding of what it is they’re actually doing. (Another example here)

But for all these complaints, many of which contain facets both valid and poorly reasoned, the real source of free soloing’s taboo lies in the observer as much as in the soloist. The free soloist is a living memento mori, a reminder of our own mortality and the fine line that divides life from death. We are attracted to the spectacle of the free soloist as an act of freedom, but at the same time it’s easy to be offended by it — we picture our children, spouses, or friends similarly risking everything. We want to be safe. We want our loved ones to be safe. Mortality is something we are loath to face.

The Latin phrase memento mori can be traced to ancient Rome. The Romans believed that awareness of mortality helped instill humility, important for a prudent life. It was adopted by early Christians as a way to warn us off sins of the transient flesh and keep us focused on the afterlife. In either case, contemplation on death was accepted as an important part of life. (Little wonder, considering life expectancy in those days was less than half what it is today.) Up through the 20th century in America, it was not unusual for families to keep close quarters with the deceased, washing and tending to their bodies and housing them until the burial took place.

Today, most of us are spared the sight of death and dying. The modern medical system transports the sick and elderly to sterile rooms as the end of life draws near. When an accident occurs, victims are immediately shuttled to the hospital or morgue. When my girlfriend, now wife, and I encountered the corpse of a fallen climber in the Flatirons of Boulder, Colorado, it was as if a curtain was pulled aside. A stark patch of drying blood and awkwardly twisted limbs lay before us. We had never seen anything like this firsthand. Later, it struck me as odd; surely people were dying — of old age, of disease, in accidents or homicides – around us every day. How was it they had been so effectively hurried out of view? Kristin and I were eager to move on and forget the incident at the time, but in retrospect, it seems somehow valuable — the original and once ubiquitous memento mori.

I choose not free solo myself; it grips me with an almost paralytic fear and offers little joy in return. And as someone who knows many climbers who free solo at varying levels of difficulty, I admittedly feel a sadness at the thought of losing my friends and acquaintances. But the memento mori reminds us of our shared and universal fate. When we lose sight of this, it becomes all to easy to imagine ourselves living forever, or that our success and wealth will somehow shield us from mortality. Death is the ultimate context, and we must live and act accordingly, whatever that means for each of us.

In the end, the motivations of the free soloist, just like the motivations of any individual in any walk of life, will vary greatly. It is certainly possible for a person to solo out of a desire to end it all. Or to solo without fully understanding the risks at hand. But it is just as possible to solo out of joy, because proximity to death makes the act of living all the more vibrant … or just because it feels right.

In ancient Rome, the memento mori was meant to warn against hubris. In the Christian conception, it played a moralizing role. Perhaps in our time, one in which death is held, for as long as possible,  at a “safe” remove, the image of the soloist — or anyone who risks his or her life for reasons not immediately evident — serves as a reminder not just of our own precariousness, but also that there is no time to waste.

Like any concept, Memento mori implies its own opposite — in this case the phrase memento vivere, “remember to live.” Remember to live particularly because we must die. It’s funny to think that we need such reminders, but, especially now, we do.

Zen Story: A Cup of Tea

A cup of tea

A Cup of Tea
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The above story is the first in the book Zen Flesh Zen Bones. It sets the tone perfectly, reminding the reader that before the page is turned, it is important to empty one’s mind as completely as possible.

This is very hard to accomplish in our day-to-day lives, because we cling with every ounce of our being to our assumptions, possessions, and desires. The value we place on material things or accomplishments or the opinions of others is gravitational. It is in our genetic code and our cultural code. But as we all must die, and not one scrap of these things can accompany us, it is really for the best that we understand our desires and fears in this larger perspective.

At the end of the 1990 movie Jacob’s Ladder, there is a scene where a sage chiropractor (Danny Aiello) offers advice to the protagonist, Jacob (Tim Robbins). Jacob has been having terrible hallucinations — men with faces distorted and blurred, eyeless doctors operating on him against his will, his girlfriend being molested by a demonic lizard at a party — and we’ve learned that he was a soldier in Vietnam. [Spoiler alert] At a certain point, we come to realize that Jacob was actually killed in Vietnam, and that the entire movie is comprised of the last moments of his tortured consciousness, played out in his expiring brain. The fantastic hallucinations make sense in this context, and the context of the chiropractor’s words: “If you’re frightened of dying, and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth.”

In this sense, the entire movie is the efforts of Jacob’s brain to make peace with his life and his death. This is something we all must do, whether we are young or old, sick or in fine health. We should always operate with the understanding that our time is limited. It gives us a certain sense of urgency about things. That we must not pass our days feeling afraid, anxious, or full of regret. Better to fill our time with things that bring us and others happiness. Better to treat every moment as the start of an existence filled with infinite potential.

Although I don’t know if Steve Jobs was a happy or well-balanced man, I do know that he was a powerful thinker, capable of seeing through to the inner kernel of a matter. In his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, now very famous, he offered this statement, a bare, resonating filament of truth:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

When Jobs gave this commencement (view it here), he had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would claim his life. He spoke as a great mind, but also as one who is forced to look his own end square in the eye. Such an encounter can leave a person hopeless and depressed. (And it is likely that Jobs felt these things, at times.) But ultimately his message was one of acceptance and understanding. More, he saw death as necessary – a thing that actually gives meaning to life.

We are all headed this way, and we have all always been headed this way. Will you attempt to ignore that truth? Will you let it drain the marrow from your life? Or will you use it as a source of energy and meaning, powering you to make the world greater than when you entered it? Every day, we must empty our cup and approach life full of excitement for the time we have. Humbled. Naked.