In his wonderful book “The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage” Ryan holiday tells the story of Michel de Montaigne, a French nobleman close to death after being flung from a galloping horse. Ryan Holiday describes death as the ultimate obstacle, that, when meditated upon can make us live life “right” – that is: prioritize and use our time well. By doing so he continues the ancient stoic argument that encourages us to balance life’s books each and every day.
Enter the story of de Montaigne. It’s late 1569:
As his friends carried his limp and bloodied body home, Montaigne watched life slip away from his physical self, not traumatically but almost flimsily, like some dancing spirit on the “tip of his lips.” Only to have it return at the last possible second. This sublime and unusual experience marked the moment Montaigne changed his life. Within a few years, he would be one of the most famous writers in Europe. After his accident, Montaigne went on to write volumes of popular essays, serve two terms as mayor, travel internationally as a dignitary, and serve as a confidante of the king.
The author then picks up the notion, that it’s a story “as old as time”. It is a clicheé – live as if it was your last day – but nonetheless true, and nearly no one lives by that standard. Montaigne did:
And so it was for Montaigne. Coming so close to death energized him, made him curious. No longer was death something to be afraid of— looking it in the eyes had been a relief, even inspiring.
Death doesn’t make life pointless, but rather purposeful. And, fortunately, we don’t have to nearly die to tap into this energy.
In Montaigne’s essays, we see proof of the fact that one can meditate on death— be well aware of our own mortality— without being morbid or a downer. In fact, his experience gave him a uniquely playful relationship with his existence and a sense of clarity and euphoria that he carried with him from that point forward. This is encouraging: It means that embracing the precariousness of our own existence can be exhilarating and empowering.
Our fear of death is a looming obstacle in our lives. It shapes our decisions, our outlook, and our actions.
But for Montaigne, for the rest of his life, he would dwell and meditate on that moment, re-creating the near-death moment as best he could. He studied death, discussing it, learning of its place in other cultures. For instance, Montaigne once wrote of an ancient drinking game in which participants took turns holding up a painting of a corpse inside a coffin and toasting to it: “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”
As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest not many years later, as he himself was growing older, “Every third thought shall be my grave.” Every culture has its own way of teaching the same lesson: Memento mori, the Romans would remind themselves. Remember you are mortal. It seems weird to think that we’d forget this or need to be reminded of it, but clearly we do.
Part of the reason we have so much trouble with acceptance is because our relationship with our own existence is totally messed up. We may not say it, but deep down we act and behave like we’re invincible. Like we’re impervious to the trials and tribulations of morality. That stuff happens to other people, not to ME. I have plenty of time left.
We forget how light our grip on life really is.
Otherwise, we wouldn’t spend so much time obsessing over trivialities, or trying to become famous, make more money than we could ever spend in our lifetime, or make plans far off in the future. All of these are negated by death. All these assumptions presume that death won’t affect us, or at least, not when we don’t want it to. The paths of glory, Thomas Gray wrote, lead but to the grave.
It doesn’t matter who you are or how many things you have left to be done, somewhere there is someone who would kill you for a thousand dollars or for a vile of crack or for getting in their way. A car can hit you in an intersection and drive your teeth back into your skull. That’s it. It will all be over. Today, tomorrow, someday soon.
It’s a cliché question to ask, What would I change about my life if the doctor told me I had cancer? After our answer, we inevitably comfort ourselves with the same insidious lie: Well, thank God I don’t have cancer. But we do. The diagnosis is terminal for all of us. A death sentence has been decreed. Each second, probability is eating away at the chances that we’ll be alive tomorrow; something is coming and you’ll never be able to stop it. Be ready for when that day comes.
Inside Our Control, Outside Our Control
Holiday reminds us of the serenity prayer. What’s inside, and what’s outside of our control? Do we know the difference? Inside of our control, it’s worth every effort. Death is not one of those things. At best we can delay it.
But awareness of our own mortality creates perspective and urgency for the time we have – for the time that is under our control. One might say this is depressing. But it can be just as invigorating. Holiday adds, that it’s simply true, and therefore we ought to make use of it:
And since this is true, we ought to make use of it. Instead of denying— or worse, fearing— our mortality, we can embrace it. Reminding ourselves each day that we will die helps us treat our time as a gift. Someone on a deadline doesn’t indulge himself with attempts at the impossible, he doesn’t waste time complaining about how he’d like things to be. They figure out what they need to do and do it, fitting in as much as possible before the clock expires.
They figure out how, when that moment strikes, to say, Of course, I would have liked to last a little longer, but I made a lot of out what I was already given so this works too.
There’s no question about it: Death is the most universal of our obstacles. It’s the one we can do the least about. At the very best, we can hope to delay it— and even then, we’ll still succumb eventually.
But that is not to say it is not without value to us while we are alive. In the shadow of death, prioritization is easier. As are graciousness and appreciation and principles. Everything falls in its proper place and perspective. Why would you do the wrong thing? Why feel fear? Why let yourself and others down? Life will be over soon enough; death chides us that we may as well do life right.
We can learn to adjust and come to terms with death— this final and most humbling fact of life— and find relief in the understanding that there is nothing else nearly as hard left. And so, if even our own mortality can have some benefit, how dare you say that you can’t derive value from each and every other kind of obstacle you encounter?
The ancient Stoic Seneca adds to this in writing:
Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.
The Stoics in that sense have developed the antidote to what we now call procrastination – and a recipe for a long life.
Complement this with Ryan Holiday’s “The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage”, The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living: Featuring new translations of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, or Tim Ferriss’ Tao of Seneca, which I’m just starting to dive into.