You Can’t Take Away My Birthday

Seneca was a big advocate for shipwrecks. While the exact number of shipwrecks he endured in his lifetime is debatable, it is widely accepted that he lost all his belongings several times in his life yet regained his composure as a man of extreme wealth. Seneca was said to be fond of the outcome provided by shipwrecks as it gave him an avenue to practice his stoicism and recommended that everyone lose everything at least once in their lives.

This is not a history lesson on Seneca, as I prefer the world of the hypothetical, but rather a thought exercise. A man, who for over 2000 years has been one of the mainstays of stoic philosophy, who wrote extensively about wanting less and abstinence from vices, was also a man whose wealth would dwarf the wealthy elite of today. In addition to his fortune, the fact that his wealth was lost and regained multiple times brings us to a paradox. How could a man who appeared to care so very little for wealth, have so much of it?

Seneca is not alone in his knack for obtaining wealth, as there are many ancient sages that began as slaves and then elevated themselves to a higher level in society.

Until I’m afforded the opportunity to ask Seneca myself, I will have to take some artistic liberties on his successes in life. I like to think that Seneca, like so many others in ancient Rome, had been taught how to think from the elders who had known loss that he could only imagine. And then Seneca was encouraged to imagine these horrible events repeatedly until he was able to master them in his own mind. He was taught to live in another perspective without having to physically endure its tragedy.

In the vaguest of ways, I’ll tell a story of a person I once helped (unknowingly) flee the police. This person had committed multiple offenses that I knew nothing about. They called me looking for a ride to an out-of-town retreat that I was already enroute for. I passed by to pick this person up without a second thought. While they were very eager to get going, I didn’t see anything odd about their behavior until we got on the highway and the truth came out.

Listening to what was surly multiple felonies, I tried to talk some sense into this person who had fled without any thought of their family. My words landed on deaf ears and by the time we arrived at the retreat, I had to make my own decisions about what I was going to do next as aiding a wanted fugitive was not on my to-do list for the day.

The host of the retreat was made aware of the situation and came with me to confront this person who I had help flee from the law. Our conversation was brief, and it was clear that they needed to return to the city and face the consequences of their actions. It was also apparent at this time that they were intoxicated.

So as quickly as we had arrived at the retreat we left. As this person sobered up a bit, the conversation became a bit more somber as they realized the severity of the situation, they had left their family in. We stopped to make a phone call to their child and the child said that the police were there looking for them. The fugitive was able to talk to the police and agreed to come into the station on their own accord.

The rest of the car ride was quite pleasant. Knowing that jail was likely in their future, they gave me some belongings of value for safe keeping, and we talked about what we thought jail might be like. We made a list of pros which included making new friends, losing weight, and having some quiet time. As we neared our destination, this person said something that I will never forget: “I don’t know what I’m worried about. It’s not like they can take away my birthday.”

This story has a happy ending as this person changed their ways after making restitution and has been living as a productive member of society for almost two decades. A few years ago, we crossed paths and I recalled the beauty of their words “It’s not like they can take away my birthday” and they had no idea what I was talking about and barely recalled the events of that day. Not all words of wisdom are spoken as such.

However, this person had lost it all and recovered their position in society just like Seneca. I believe in part it was because of their perspective. Making a gratitude list on the way to jail is not a practice many people would turn to as their world was imploding. Knowing what is in our control and what is not is not a simple thought. It takes practice. It takes losing and regaining many times either in real world or in our minds to know that in the end, it is up to us alone what hurts us.

Today I will adjust my expectations to want what I have instead of placing my happiness on an unknown future. When I’m gliding along on calm waters and my ship suddenly sinks, I will not lament on why, but look forward to what comes next and meet the future with a clean slate.

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