Warning: The Following Article contains spoilers for John Wick 3 — Parabellum
When John Wick (Keanu Reeves) must make a choice between killing Winston (Ian McShane) or rebelling from the High Table and facing death himself, Winston asks a poignant question, “Who do you wish to die as?”
He observes that death will come to John one way or another. Does he want to die as the Baba Yaga, bringer of death and lapdog of the High Table, or as a man who loved and remembers his dead wife?
The question prompts the Stoic principle of Memento Mori, which translated from Latin means, “Remember you will die.”
This practice of the Stoics was meant to keep life in perspective. As morbid as the idea of reflecting on your death may appear, it is meant to be liberating. As Ward Farnsworth wrote in The Practicing Stoic, “Mortality is the defining feature of our existence; Stoics want the imminence of it to inform their daily lives.”
It is the end which puts everything into perspective. Inevitable in its nature, death will come for us all. No matter what we do, we each will face the grim visage of our own end.
As such, it is a powerful way to perceive the world around you. Freeing yourself of the drama of the daily grind, remembering your death gives true perspective to the snide comments of others or the perceived slights you may have suffered.
It allows us to let go of the tedious and trite elements of life in favor of reflecting on ones which have lasting importance, such as the legacy we leave behind.
A popular self-actualizing exercise is to write your own obituary. The idea is that by writing out what you wish to be remembered for, it will inform your actions in the present. For example, if you want to be remembered as an athletic person, or active member of the local community, it will prompt you to start pursuing those activities today.
Think of yourself as having died, and as having finished the life you have lived until now. The portion that is allied to you beyond this, live out according to nature. — Marcus Aurelius
Who you were doesn’t matter providing you go forward living differently. The identity we leave behind is forged through our decisions and actions.
Identity Through Action
“If you wou’d not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worth reading,
or do things worth the writing.” — Benjamin Franklin
Who we are is shaped by what we do. John Wick’s identity, either as man or monster, is determined by the decision he will make, to kill Winston or not.
We choose who we will become based on how we act and treat others also. If you wish to be a generous person, it requires not only being willing to give from your wallet, but also from your time and attention. Being healthy isn’t just a matter of wishing to be well and eating sparingly, it’s eating good food and engaging in an active lifestyle.
Author James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, illustrates the point between two people who are trying to quit smoking. One says, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.” The Second says, “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.” Odds are the second will actually quit smoking because they have chosen the identity of someone who doesn’t smoke and reenforce the identity through action.
It’s a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was a part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes. — James Clear (Atomic Habits)
The daily little choices get forgotten in the midst of the large, seemingly life-defining decisions we face. The reality is the little ones are just as important in who you will become as the large ones. John Wick’s decision will be based upon the small decisions, which form the basis of the life or death choice he will make.
Who will you die as?
The point the Stoics make is while death is outside of our control, what we do with the time we have is within our control.
Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man’s power to live long. — Seneca
John Wick will die, just as everyone eventually will. Who he is and what he does until his death is his choice.
When asked why he wishes to live, despite his tragedy, he says it is because he wants to live to remember his wife and her love. Does prolonging his life to remember her matter if it is at the cost of his soul?
The average individual, even the above average individual, rarely has these kinds of cinematic stakes at play in their daily life. We forget the reality of death through the drudgery of livening life; the Monday morning meetings and picking up dry cleaning. We walk through the motions of existing without consideration of what it will mean when we no longer live.
When the Stoics looked at death, they didn’t see it as something to be feared. Reflecting upon the shortness of our lives is to inspire us to use it to best effect, to inspire living a fuller genuine life. To be intentional in what we do and who we will become.
Knowing neither time nor place, death will simply arrive in due course. Who we are remembered as is a matter of the life we have lived, not in the moments of our death, requiring each of us to make use of the day while it is yet day.
It is with life as with a play: what matters is not how long it is, but how good. It makes no difference at what point you stop. Leave off where you choose; just be sure to give it a good ending.— Seneca
Through Memento Mori we are reminded to live knowing death will come, and live today as if we may not see the sunrise of a new dawn. This should not cause us to become hedonistic or fearful, instead to live as the person we wish to be remembered as.
Who do you wish to die as?