Tony Jarvis, the legendary head of Roxbury Latin, an all-boys school renowned as one of the best in the country, used to give the same speech every year to the parents of the senior class: “I don’t care where your sons go to college. I don’t care what they do for a living. Our mission is not to prepare your children for a good life; we are seeking to prepare them for a good death.” These words may seem shocking, especially from the Head of such a prestigious school, but they are likely key to the institution’s success.
Memento Mori, the Stoic principle that we should frequently remember death, is an axiom foundational to nearly all the world’s great traditions. Samuel 14:14 in the Bible states, “For we shall surely die, and be as water poured upon the earth, which shall not be gathered up again.” Within the Islamic tradition, there is a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) is reported to have said, “Remember often the destroyer of pleasures,” by which he meant death.
So, what’s up with this morbid fascination with dying? The fact that we will all leave this world is one of the only truths that every human agrees on. Frequently remembering this ultimate reality is one of the best ways to help us organize our finite time in this world. Beginning with the end in mind is one of the seven habits compiled by Steven Covey in his famous book. It means that we should envision where we want to be at some point in the future, say ten years from today, and then work backwards to design a plan to reach there. The logical extension of this concept is to begin with our death in mind and then reverse engineer a deeply meaningful life.
Some argue that death does not need to be planned for since it will happen no matter what. This concept is the birthplace of the YOLO (you only live once) and FOMO (fear of missing out) lifestyles so popular among youth today. While it is technically true that death will come whether planned for or not, choosing not to prepare for it is, pardon the pun, a fatal mistake. I prefer JOMO (joy of missing out) as an organizing principle, which a BBC article describes as “relief from the breathless and guilt-laden need to be perennially switched on and constantly productive” and “proudly living life in the slow lane and deriving pleasure from social exclusion.”
I remember one of the lectures that first convinced me to embrace Islam. The imam said, “I want you to think about the tree. It sprouts from a tiny seed that no scientist could ever create. It becomes a sapling, and, over many years, grows to be a delicious source of shade. Every spring, as Allah sends down the rain, its leaves begin to bud. They then become green and full of life. Next, fall comes, and these leaves turn vibrant colors of crimson and yellow. At last, they float to the ground to fertilize future trees. In the winter, the tree appears to be dead. But, as even a young child knows, the tree is not dead and will soon come to life again in the spring.” He then recited an ayah from the Quran that sent shivers down my spine: “It is He who brings forth the living from the dead and the dead from the living. And He gives life to the earth after its death. And so too will you be brought forth from the grave.” The realities of this life are staring us in the face, but we have become so busy with our phones and our jobs and our social media that we remain blind to it.
My school’s unofficial motto used to be that we “prepare students for the Afterlife and the Ivy League.” It took me many years to realize how out of touch and elitist this phrase was. We have now switched it to preparing for the “Here and the Hereafter.” I don’t think you need to believe in any sort of afterlife to use death to motivate you to live a good life—the Stoics were on to this idea 2000 years ago. Confronting and overcoming our fears is probably THE organizing principle of this entire essay series, and mankind fears nothing more than death. If you choose to put your head in the sand and ignore this ultimate reality, you will inevitably get lost in the sauce. So even though I have visions of supporting myself as a life coach and college counselor, I really don’t care where you go to college.