from ‘Sometimes’ by Mary Oliver


Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.


(Red Bird: Poems, 2008)


Memento mori: random-ish thoughts

Memento mori: a Latin phrase that translates to ‘remember that you have to die’.


It may not appear quite as inspiring as carpe diem (‘pluck the day’ or ‘seize the day’), but it nevertheless conveys the same ineluctable certainty: our days on this earth, however many or few, are finite. Though we apprehend this truth of our mortality, we don’t really comprehend it. As Frederick Buechner points out,

Intellectually we all know that we will die, but we do not really know it in the sense that the knowledge becomes part of us. We do not really know it in the sense of living as though it were true. On the contrary, we tend to live as though our lives would go on forever. We spend our lives like drunken sailors. (1969, p. 72)

Perhaps we don’t truly come to grips with the ephemerality of life until we first come face to face with our own mortality or see its reflection in those close to us when our bodies or minds become touched by the shadow of illness, injury, or aging.

When we respond to the suffering of others, assuming we chooold-letters-436502__340se to acknowledge and step into that space of weakness and imperfection, are we not in some manner also responding to ourselves? Christianity teaches “love your neighbor as yourself” and Buddhism has an expression about seeing yourself in others.

In our response to human suffering, we might say, “That could be…will be…is me.” Or in the words attributed to John Bradford, the old English reformer and martyr, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” How introspective and compassionate we are!

How patronizing and cruel.

W.H. Auden remarked, “all pity is self-pity.” If we’re truthful, we may admit that we’re at least partly uncomfortable because we’re instinctively selfish; we can’t help but make all suffering about our reality and our feelings. Seeing other people’s worlds disturbed in turn upsets the comforting equilibrium of our own. We want other people to feel better because we also want to feel better. Psychologists refer to these as ‘egoistic motives’ (i.e., self-benefiting) — in contrast to ‘altruistic motives’ (i.e., other-benefiting), which are more empathic and focused on helping the other person (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007).


When faced with suffering, do we respond with banal platitudes (“You’re in my thoughts.” “I’m sending ‘positive vibes’!”) and half-meant promises (“I’ll visit.” “I’ll be happy to help out if you need anything.”) — or can/must we offer something more? Does fear prevent us from getting too close physically or emotionally? How much of a personal connection or commitment beyond this moment are we willing to make?

But perhaps this moment is enough. In consideration of our own mental and emotional space or our other constraints, maybe it is all right to be content with the limited portion that we have to give. If we’re not prepared to risk ourselves, and if others are reluctant or unwilling to accept what we have to offer (especially if offered unwillingly or falsely), then self-condemnation would achieve little for either party.

Then again, what if such rationalizations are not “good enough”? Though meant to spare others, aren’t they really meant to spare us from our own personal discomfort with the suffering of others?  What if such rationalizations are not good enough for other people who are most in need of sustained human connection — or for us, who may also be in need of human connection…with this person?

It’s rather presumptuous of us to assume that those who are suffering have nothing of value to contribute to our lives. Yet neither do they exist to assuage our guilt; nor is it theirs to grant us sainthood or to help us rack up ‘karma points’.


Over four decades ago, the author Madeline L’Engle had this to say about the attitudinal and interpersonal struggles surrounding old age, illness, and dying:

As for me, when my time comes, I’d like to be put out on an ice floe.

I heard a doctor say that the living tend to withdraw emotionally from the dying, thereby driving them deeper into isolation. Not to withdraw takes tremendous strength. To pull back is a temptation; it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as remaining open. […] There is always the memento mori, the realization that death is contagious; it is contracted the moment we are conceived. […]

I always took a bath when I got home from the hospital.

It takes a tremendous maturity, a maturity I don’t possess, to strike the balance of involvement/detachment which makes us creatively useful, able to be compassionate, to be involved in the other person’s suffering rather than in our own response to it. False compassion, or sentimentality, always leads us to escape by withdrawing, by becoming cold and impassive and wounding. (1972, pp. 117-120)

I appreciate her honesty. L’Engle’s phrase, “which makes us creatively useful” continues to captivate me. I need to give more thought to what it means to be useful to others in ways that are not always obvious or predictable, but in those that are unexpected, thoughtful, imaginative, inspired, original, inconspicuous.

dying-flower-1I don’t see memento mori as grim or depressing. I see it as a reminder that we have before us the task of sorting through the detritus of everyday life to ascertain what ultimately does and does not matter.

It appears this business gets easier as time gets shorter. Atul Gawande (2014) in his book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, explains how “socioemotional selectivity theory” developed by Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen gives some insight into the value of close social relationships. Essentially, the theory posits that as people progress toward the end of their lives, they become more selective about how they invest in emotionally meaningful goals and relationships. This allows them to maintain positive emotional regulation:

…how we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have. When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever. You do not worry about losing any of your capabilities. People tell you “the world is your oyster,”

…when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain—your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you. (Gawande, 2014, pp. 97-98)

So, here’s to memento mori, becoming less afraid, growing emotionally mature, investing in emotionally meaningful relationships, being creatively useful, and staying playful. 



  • Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Encyclopedia of social psychology (Vol. 1). London: SAGE.
  • Buechner, F. (1969). The hungering dark. New York: Seabury Press.
  • Gawande, A. (2014). Being mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  • L’Engle, M. (1972). A circle of quiet: The Crosswicks journal (Vol. 1). New York: HarperCollins.

What makes us ‘human’


The 13th century Persian poet Saadi is quoted as saying that a person who is indifferent to the pain or suffering of others is a traitor to that which is truly human.

Although empathy is more in line with what Saadi was referring to, numerous studies have shown that pain, suffering, fear, and other emotional responses can be socially acquired through observing the suffering of others. Hatfield et al.’s (1994) fascinating book, Emotional Contagion, for example, offers a glimpse into the mechanisms behind the spread of emotions and emotional synchrony.

mouseBut this suffering and response business isn’t just for humans—animals do it too! Experimental studies such as Jeon et al. (2010) found that mice developed freezing behavior after observing another mouse receive repeated foot shocks (ouch!). Moreover, the observer mice’s fear responses were intensified when the shocked mice were socially related (e.g., mates, siblings)! This may give you something to ponder when purchasing your next mousetrap.

More accessible accounts of emotion in the animal world include The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow and Empathy–And Why They Matter by Mark Bekoff, How Animals Grieve by Barbara King, and When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals by Jeffrey Moussaleff Masson and Susan McCarthy.

Are you feeling sad for the mice in Jeon et al.’s (2010) study? Perhaps sympathy…er…empathy? Is there a difference? Here’s a quote from my in-press publication:

The terms empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but an examination of interactants’ affiliative work warrants greater precision. Empathy “involves sharing the perceived emotion of another – ‘feeling with’ another” (Eisenberg and Strayer 1990: 5) and is “the imaginative sharing of someone else’s experience” (Hepburn and Potter 2007: 99). Heritage defines empathy as “an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition” (2011: 161). Sympathy may be thought of as “‘feeling for’ someone, and refers to feelings of sorrow, or feeling sorry, for another” (Eisenberg and Strayer 1990: 6), but it does not require sharing or identifying with the other person’s feelings.

(Prior, in-press)

You can also watch this entertaining 3-minute video which explains the difference between empathy and sympathy quite nicely.

Can we say, then, that this shared lack of indifference to suffering—whether it’s a physiological or psychological response, a show of compassion, or something else—makes both people and animals truly “human”? Hmm…


  • Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J.T., & Rapson, R.L. (1994). Emotional contagion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jeon, D. et al. (2010). Observational fear learning involves affective pain system and Cav 1.2 Ca2+ channels in ACC. Nature Neuroscience 13(4), 482-490.

Eustress & Distress

canstock0359890Feeling stressed? Is it eustress or distress? A number of researchers (and laypersons) distinguish between stress that is beneficial or facilitative (eustress) for the individual and stress that is debilitative or destructive (distress). Early work on stress owes an intellectual debt to Hans Selye. See, for example, his 1974 book, Stress Without Distress.  

Selye and Associate

But Richard Lazarus, in his book Stress and Emotion: A New Synthesis, discusses some of the problems with this simplistic binary—namely, the assumption that so-called “positive emotional states, such as joy, love, and positive striving (as in the case of challenge), facilitate health and protect against illness, whereas negative emotional states, such as anger, envy, and jealousy, damage health” (2006, p. 264).

Folk beliefs surrounding contemporary notions of stress have continued to perpetuate the “eustress and positive emotion are good” and “distress and negative emotion are bad” perspectives. It is true, we do find that research shows high levels of distress are associated with poorer performance and reduced learning, increased anxiety and aggression, memory impairment, and other negative outcomes. But many studies have also demonstrated that lower levels of stress are necessary for activating and maintaining attentional and response resources, for stimulation and relieving boredom, for personal growth and developing self-regulatory strategies. Without stress, there is no growth and no opportunity for resilience.

In SLA and Applied Linguistics, we are now seeing researchers working to tea978-3-319-32954-3se apart tDocument1hese issues and their relevance for L2 learning, teaching, and use by drawing on the findings and perspectives of positive psychology. This offers a pleasant counterpoint to the prevailing focus in the field on anxiety and “negative” emotions by exploring flow, happiness, enjoyment, perseverance, empathy, hope, and other “positive” emotional states. Leading the way are edited volumes by MacIntyre, Gregersen, & Mercer (“Positive Psychology in SLA”) and Gabryś-Barker & Gałajda (“Positive Psychology Perspectives on Foreign Language Learning and Teaching”).


Aging and death are natural (and inevitable) parts of the human experience. These are as much emotional and even spiritual matters are they are physical and mental. As a result, they are deeply relational—affecting the whole person and their quality of life as well as the lives of their family, caregivers, and friends. How are we addressing the emotionality and spirituality of aging across the lifespan? What questions should we be asking and what conversations should we be having? Where and how can we listen better?

Young hand holding old hand
“People are reluctant to talk about old age and death because they are afraid of emotion, and they willingly avoid the things they feel the most emotional about, though these are the very things they most need to talk about.”  – Paul Tournier (in ‘Learn to Grow Old’)