Photo Courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing

Today is my birthday! It’s been one year since I celebrated my fiftieth birthday in Boston with my husband.

As my fifty-first birthday approached, I remembered a post I wrote more than a year ago leading up to my “big” milestone birthday. In that post, I asked myself a series of questions, and I forced myself to take a hard, honest look at the people and activities I was allowing to take up space in my life. I was shocked by what I discovered.

You can read the entire post to get a feel for how my mother’s death more than a decade ago still influences how I look at my own mortality which in turn affects decisions I make.

I didn’t write about it in that post, but when I find myself fearing and worrying about death (mine and others), I tend to turn to Memento Mori — the ancient practice of meditating or reflecting on the prospect of our own death. Memento Mori can be traced back more than two millennia, as early as the teachings of Socrates, and throughout time in various philosophies and religions, including ancient Roman traditions, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Stoicism.

To many of you, Memento Mori may sound morbid and depressing. To reflect on our own deaths or even on the deaths of those close to us is not easy, to say the least, but it’s something I’ve forced myself to do for a variety of reasons — a topic for another day.

Ryan Holiday of the Daily Stoic, one of the most well-known modern students of ancient Stoicism, says this:

“Meditating on your mortality is only depressing if you miss the point. It is in fact a tool to create priority and meaning. It’s a tool that generations have used to create real perspective and urgency. To treat our time as a gift and not waste it on the trivial and vain.”

And Marcus Aurelius, philosopher and emperor of Rome (A.D. 161–180) wrote in his Meditations, a book I’m currently reading in full:

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

Of course, the Bible mentions death countless times, and in countless ways. But for purposes of this post, I tend to look to the teachings of ancient Stoics as they help us see death as a reason to live a better, fuller life on this earth, whereas the Bible teaches us not to fear death and how to achieve life after death.

Whatever your spiritual practice is, the wisdom of those that came before us can help us to see our own life in a different light.

So, back to the questions from “On Tuning Fifty.” Six of the questions I asked in that post were as follows:

  • Am I surrounding myself with people who lift me and others up?
  • Am I spending what little time I have on this earth contributing to meaningful pursuits?
  • Am I putting more importance on accumulating experiences rather than accumulating material possessions?
  • Am I being intentional with how I spend my time? Saying ‘yes’ to things I truly want to spend time on, and saying ‘no’ to things that are not worth my time?
  • Am I surrounding myself with beauty, kindness, and positivity?
  • Am I feeding my spiritual and emotional needs as much as my physical needs?

As I read those questions now and reflect on the decisions I’ve made since writing them, I can admit that the answer to all of those questions was “No” at the time I wrote them. That is probably why I asked those particular questions. I knew something was “off” in my life and that something had to change.

It was soon after writing that post that I gave myself permission to make changes that rid my life of anything that added stress and toxicity.

This sounds like a no brainer, right? Why would anyone allow something (or someone) make their life worse? But I was doing this. And I was doing it most likely out of fear and convenience.

It’s scary to make decisions that will affect your life in big ways. For example, have you ever held a job that provided you the income and stability that you and/or your family needed, yet it was a job that was stressful or maybe full of coworkers or a boss that treated you poorly? It’s more convenient to keep that job, right? The consequences of leaving a job is loss of income and the inconvenience of finding another. But the reward of leaving could be an improvement to your mental and physical well-being. Another reward could be finding a better, more rewarding job in both the monetary sense, but also in the spiritual sense.

Another example: Have you ever had to put up boundaries for a family member or a close friend? Maybe you’ve had someone in your life who was harmful to you or your family, and you needed to create space between them and you.

Memento Mori. “Remember you must die.”

Remembering that I will someday die tells me to not allow anyone or anything to take up precious time or mental space that does not add positive meaning to my life.

So when I wrote “On Turning Fifty” shortly before my birthday, I knew what I had to do. I knew that in order for me to treat my own time on this earth as a gift and to not waste time on people and activities that were adding stress and negativity to my life, I knew I had to make changes. In order to begin answering the questions above with a resounding “Yes!”, I had to alter my life.

I also knew that making these changes would add inconvenience to my life, and in the short term, it would add sadness and more stress. There were definitely consequences to my decision. For that reason, it would take me months before I successfully removed a particular toxicity from my life, but reflecting back on that decision today: It was 100% the right decision.

Removing toxicity from your life opens up your time and mental space for people and experiences that are more deserving. It certainly did for me.

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