Thursday, February 24, 2011

I Was Once

Remnant of a statue of Aurelius
"I was once a fortunate man but at some point fortune abandoned me. But true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions."

- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5:37

* * *

It is impossible for me not to love Aurelius. Impossible. In these three brief sentences he sketches in the arc of his days, the arc of mine and all who have passed through the fires of their lives.

* * *

Each life begins somewhere and moves out into the world from that one fixed point in time. What we think, what we do, what we decide is based on where we begin, who and what we encounter and the process of assimilating and weighing the evidence before us provides us with our first sense of what is good, of what our lives are for, of what is possible.

I was once a fortunate man...

I can stretch my mind back to my first strengths, to the certainty of absolutes, to the untested certainties I carried around like so many rocks ready to be flung through windows: I knew I was smart and that knowledge made me believe in my own good fortune. I was born into the vast middle, but I was different (or so I believed) and that was my good fortune. I was smart, unforgiving, arrogant without cause - as are all who are arrogant - and I was without direction. No cause moved me to action. Righteousness was its own reward.

... but at some point fortune abandoned me.

I married a brilliant woman at 25. Such was her brilliance she divorced me within a year saying, "Do you have any idea how awful it is to be with someone who is always right?" Not right, self-righteous. I was, in the words of a dear friend, "knocked off my pins." The testing had begun.

It is a given that life will question you, that the certainty with which you step foot out the door will be called into question by events outside of your control. No one gets a free ride. All must answer the questions their lives bring forth. It is no use comparing the questions and circumstances of one life to another. Some one will always have it worse that you. Some one will always seem to have it easier, but so what? You can only concern yourself with the questions (and answers) of your life.

All I had believed was in a shambles. Certainty had evaporated and with it my sense of self - the sense of self that had arrived from the vacuum of my modestly privileged youth, the vacuum that is present at the start of each life, the vacuum waiting to be filled by experience.

But true good fortune is what you make for yourself.

I clung to my arrogance in new ways - as victim, as survivor, as misunderstood. And one by one life questioned the usefulness of each. I was a dull student and years moved by and I still slogged it out, assuming new roles, trying out new ways of being, always looking for the answers in what others had wrought out of their lives: husband, father, writer, student, worker. Always I allowed myself to be under-employed because I looked at how others managed their roles and instead of forging my own I wore the uniforms that were handed to me. I hadn't learned a thing. And then I lost it all again. I hadn't learned and so had to re-take the test and the cost this time was catastrophic.

It was only then, with my life scrubbed of all pretense, that I began to understand good fortune as something that is entirely internal and has no basis in the various fortunes that arrive from outside one's self. I was once fucked, but now I was free.

It is up to you, and you alone, to make your life into the shape you would have it be. Again, don't look at what you have, but who you are. That is the lock and key to unfucking your life.

Good fortune: good character, good intentions, good actions.

The greatest fortune is to be who you are and who you are is a dialog between your thoughts and deeds - this is your character. The most fortunate man on earth is the one who knows who he is and lives that knowledge in such a way that it emboldens others to do the same. Heidegger wrote of authenticity and inauthenticity. It may be better understood as owning one's life. The task each of has, whether we ever recognize it or not, is to own our lives and to act in accordance with our knowledge, character and intention.

How we do that is the single greatest joy available to us, by needs be it will be utterly unique for each of us. That is our gift. That is our challenge. That is our privilege.

Stop comparing yourself to others.
Don't copy off your neighbor.
Do your own work.
This is a timed test.



  1. I heard the quote by Aurelius about how fortune abandoned him. Curious what he meant, then I remembered about the death, or deaths of his children and various betrayals. Is that what he was referring too? I just seems out of character for him to use that to preface his beautiful quote about about true fortune.

    Anyway, it lead me to this page which I really enjoyed. Thanks for posting.

    1. Joseph,

      It always knocks me out when people find this page through sideways means. Thank you for taking the time to read it and to post a response. You can read me here, or at It is a bit prettier page. Cheers.