It was a Roman custom for conquering generals to be treated with unimaginable respect. They returned from the front to find the entire capital turned out in a mega-celebration that must have resembled something like New Year’s Eve in Times Square.
Yet, a few Roman traditions bear witness to a practice that was meant to temper some of the pomp and circumstance. A hired man, sometimes a slave, was included in the conqueror’s procession. He ran along beside the general’s chariot and would periodically whisper in the conqueror’s ear, memento mori: “Remember your death.”
Those whispered words were intended to ring louder than all the cheers of victory. And without a doubt they rang truer; for all accomplishment eventually fades, even the accomplishments of conquering demigods. But these words were also meant to motivate. In life, short as it is, one cannot bask in the celebrations of the past for too long. Other battles are always waiting to be fought, and there remains much work still undone.
A less direct but just as challenging phrase comes from Jesus in the gospel of John. He said, “We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned to us…For the night is coming when no one can work.” Death is coming to all of us, more of a fact than a tragedy. It’s only “a vile thing when men are unprepared for it,” and the best preparation is memento mori. This keeps us from dawdling about, basking in the glory of what has already been done, when there is still so much more to do.
Granted, you’ll complete none of life’s “assigned tasks” without setting some goals. That sounds obvious enough but it is a work so often left undone. Without clear objectives life just passively “happens,” with circumstance and environment completely dictating the direction of our lives. Oh, we might talk or dream of life being different, but it never will be if goals aren’t set and there isn’t some diligent work made in that direction.
For every person who has no idea where he or she is going in life, there are probably a dozen people who have a distinct picture in their minds of what they are after, of what they intend to achieve or experience. Yet, this latter group is as rudderless as the former, if they never take the necessary, concrete steps to get to where they hope to be.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish,” the book of Proverbs says. Certainly, this is true. But just as certain is another biblical proverb (and I prefer Eugene Peterson’s translation): “Careful planning puts you ahead in the long run; but hurry and scurry only puts you further behind.”
Your life is going to be busy (a fact as certain as death), but “hurry and scurry” – busyness without focused intentionality – will get you nowhere. There comes a time to set some goals and to get after them. That time is now, because time is always ticking away.