Though you may not be familiar with their Latin phrases, the concepts of tempus fugit and memento mori are ingrained in our human experience. In fact, we even have cliché phrases to express such phenomenon:
- time flies when you’re having fun, or the time flew by
- near-death experience, or brush with death
These feelings and principles are uniquely human, and perhaps hard-wired into our conscious and subconscious thinking to remind us that our lives and moments, as well as those of others, are precious and impermanent.
Though it’s difficult to go about our daily lives appreciating every moment, or considering whether it’s about to be our last, tempus fugit and memento mori should be welcome and motivating concepts when they surface. The more we embrace them, the more rewarding and meaningful our lives can become.
Nearly everyone understands the relative and universal feelings of how time passes—it can crawl, or it can fly, figuratively. Tempus fugit is a Latin phrase that translates as “time flies.”
This expression is attributed to the poet Virgil, who wrote “it escapes, irretrievable time.” The concept of time flying is meant to illustrate the fact that a person’s time is limited, passing at a continuous rate, and it cannot be retrieved.
Though this can feel disheartening, bearing in mind the idea of tempus fugit can actually be an impactful motivator when it comes to prioritizing and balancing your life. Recognizing the limits of time can motivate people to pursue their passions and goals as well as spend quality time with people they care about and love.
It can also encourage people to not waste time and energy on regrets, events that can’t be changed, or things that are potentially trivial in the long-term. The concept of tempus fugit can be used to guide your decisions, thoughts, and actions to spur forward in following your dreams and avoid delaying important contributions to your relationships, in addition to letting go of past angry and hurt emotions.
In addition to motivating actions, remembering that time flies can also encourage people to pause and appreciate individual moments as they are being experienced.
Often, we are caught up in thoughts about what has already happened or what hasn’t happened yet, in addition to feeling the pressure to get from one moment to the next. This can prevent us from being mindful and present during moments and experiences that we won’t get back.
One way to mitigate this is to take time to pause and be aware of your senses—what you are seeing, hearing, feeling, etc. This gives you the power to remember and reflect on important moments later, once they have passed.
In her novel Memento Mori, one of Muriel Spark’s characters states, “If I had my life to live over again, I would form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is not another practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life.”
This quote reflects the meaning of the Latin phrase memento mori, translated as “remember that you will die.” This concept was prevalent in medieval art and architecture and often symbolized by human skulls, coffins, wilting flowers, and hourglasses. These symbols were meant to remind people of the inevitability of death and the impermanence of human life.
Part of the reason for this recurring motif was to establish social and moral order through not-so-subtle indicators of judgement and the afterlife. However, the concept is universal, apart from any religious or political agenda. In fact, elements of memento mori are present and transcend time, geography, and all forms of art as part of the human experience.
Though some people may feel uncomfortable or saddened at the reminder of their mortality, like the passage of time, knowing that our lives are impermanent is a motivating force. This takes on greater significance and benefits with age and experience as people are more likely to be aware of and adopt healthier habits to extend their years of life. Some people have designated “bucket” lists of things they want to do or see before their end of life.
Of course, most of us don’t want to consider death for multiple reasons. It’s difficult to imagine not being in the world in addition to facing the unknown of whether there is anything on the other side. Many people strive for what some consider “immortality” through fame, art, children, and other traces of legacy as a means of “living” beyond bodily death.
However, recognizing the inevitability of our mortality is helpful in prioritizing meaningful experiences and passionately pursuing what we find to be rewarding in life without extreme delay and hesitation.
It’s also important to not only be cognizant of our own mortality, but that of others who are important to us. It’s quite common to hear people express regret that they didn’t spend more quality time with relatives and friends that have passed.
This is especially true in terms of asking meaningful questions and expressing the extent of our care and gratitude for those we love while we have the opportunity to be with them.
Time Flies. Remember Death.
There are many cross-over themes and ideas that apply to time flying and remembering death. In addition, it can be unhealthy to fixate on these concepts to the point that it causes psychological paralysis in terms of living daily life.
There is a paradox in knowing that our time is limited and death is inevitable, yet also not knowing how much time we have left or when/how we will die. Therefore, it can be frustrating to bear these concepts in mind and still continue with day-to-day existence.
The middle ground, perhaps, between worrying about time passing and anticipating death, is to create as much of a meaningful life each day as you can. This doesn’t have to involve huge gestures or monumental accomplishments. The idea is to consider and decide what is important to you each day so that you can feel at peace.
Conversely, it’s also important to recognize that there are days in which you might not consciously think about the concepts of time flying and/or remembering death, which is also healthy.
Ideas for Ways to “Capture” Time and Create a Legacy
Of course, we would all like to capture moments in time and create a legacy in some way so that we are remembered. In fact, much of modern life is spent attempting these very pursuits.
We are able to document and record ourselves and the world around us at any point by just utilizing our phones, not to mention the opportunity provided by social media to “store” and leave a trail of activities and memories for nearly anyone to see.
The problem with having thousands of pictures on our phones or establishing a presence through social media is that, in many cases, the moments that are recorded in these ways often lose their meaning and significance because they happen without much effort or presence of mind.
This reflects an image of the trope of parents watching their child perform through a digital device that is recording the event so that it can be viewed again later, all while missing the opportunity to see their child in the present moment without the use of a lens.
For a more meaningful and significant collection of memories and experiences, the keys are to expend some effort with a sense of purpose. Here are some ideas for easy, enjoyable, and mindful ways to capture time and create a legacy:
Since many people find keeping a daily journal to be stressful and/or labor-intensive, a better option may be recording just one observation or thought each day. This can take the form of noting something for which you feel grateful, writing down something interesting that you saw or did, or even a favorite quote. Looking back, you can view this as a small window into what was meaningful to you on a given day.
Another method of capturing time and preserving memories is to select a subject and take a photo of it at regular intervals. The subject can be your garden, home, pet, or even your child/grandchild, and you can take a snapshot on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. This gives you a visual display of the beauty that comes with change and growth.
List-making is not only a helpful, enjoyable, and even therapeutic activity, but it can also reflect a “snapshot” of who you are at a certain time. You can create a group of lists and note how your interests, tastes, and habits grow and change across time. For example, you can choose the same day each month to record the books you have read in the past 30 days, or make a list of your favorite novels, poems, etc. You might also make a list each year during “awards” season of the movies you’ve seen and whether you liked them or not. There are an infinite number of lists that you can create as a means of recording your life experiences, preferences, and more, and this is also a method of connecting to others by asking them to share their lists as well.
Avoid Procrastinating in a Better Way
Everyone participates in some level of procrastination, whether it’s putting off a household chore or an unpleasant work task. Though chronic procrastination is likely to affect your quality of time and life, it’s unlikely that most things on your daily to-do list will be a true detriment if they go undone occasionally.
The type of procrastination that may be detrimental, however, is the prolonging and/or passing up of opportunities to find your passion, do something you love, have an adventure, or achieve a goal.
Along with tempus fugit and memento mori is the Latin phrase carpe diem, which literally translates to pluck the day. People who invoke this phrase often do so in the context of “seizing” the day, meaning welcoming opportunities and chances as they come without worrying about whether they will come again. Common wisdom is that most regrets experienced at the end of life are those of risks and chances not taken.
Therefore, knowing that time flies and death is inevitable, the better way to avoid procrastination is to seize opportunities as they come and create opportunities for a fulfilling life as often as possible. This may mean trying a different career, forming new relationships, traveling, or even taking up a new pastime. This requires a mindset of understanding that it’s never too early or too late to pluck the day.
Though nobody truly knows how much time they have in this life, ultimately, everyone’s time is limited. Therefore, the best advice is to use it wisely and enjoy every day as much as possible.