Facing Death


A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.

Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

As I sit down to write this post, Brussels is under a level 4 terror alert—the highest.

Beside me there’s a packed suitcase and in my bag, train tickets. Destination? A small village close to Brussels.

This is not me going “yeah let’s live dangerously,” I could go to Cambodia if I wanted to do that. I’m going to Brussels for a work I signed up to do back in September, and if I said I would do it, it will get done.

This work I’ll be doing consists of two workshops and a few other activities over the course of a week with participants coming from the entire continent. A handful of which have canceled their participation in light of the recent attacks.

I don’t judge that handful. It’s entirely in their right to choose going home instead of being a few miles away from a city that seems to be very, very worried. I get that. Each person gets to decide what they do with their lives and if they think they’re risking it, it’s entirely in their right to do something else.

But can we take a moment to question Death and not be scared by him whenever we see a glimpse of his scythe?

In this case, as well as in many others, I look to Stoicism to find a fitting passage.

When a slave runs away from his master, we call him a fugitive slave. But the law of nature is a master too, and to break it is to become a fugitive.
To feel grief, anger or fear is to try to escape from something decreed by the ruler of all things, now or in the past or in the future. And that ruler is law, which governs what happens to each of us. To feel grief or anger or fear is to become a fugitive—a fugitive from justice.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 10 – 25

Thanks, Marcus!

I would be happy to write some more about my specific situation and why there’s no reason to feel fear, but I want to expand and look at the big picture. There’s only so much good that can come of me explaining Belgian politics.

Far too many times we find ourselves hesitant to do something, scared off because of “what might happen.” Well, something might always happen. Driving in traffic is one of the most dangerous things we do, and yet I’d be willing to bet that 95% of my audience does that every day. What’s so different? The threat of an attack that might happen? What about the threat of a drunk driver that might exist?

At one point we have to accept that life isn’t as safe as we make it up to be. This isn’t a defeatist attitude, this is nothing more than remembering that there’s only one thing that’s certain in anyone’s life, and this certainty carries a scythe.

Memento mori. Knowing we can die is powerful. Accepting that this is our ultimate fate gives us power, rather than takes it away. When we accept that this is ultimately outside of our control, we are truly free. We can focus on living and making a masterpiece out of our lives.

“And for myself, may my death be as my life has been.”
Cyrus the Great, Cyropaedia

This is the last post going up until I get back from Brussels in a week (December 4).