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019 - On Retirement - Moral Letters for Modern Times

How much better to choose the time of your leaving yourself.
Trees in silhouette with purple light - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

I am never so happy as when my mailbox yields up an e-mail from you. They contain confirmation of your progress, and this is no small thing. I urge you to continue on in this way, and this urging is for your benefit more than any other. You are now at the point where you must decide the next stage of your life: will you stay on the raging white waters, bending your oar to keep the ship straight, or will you turn off onto a quieter tributary, where eventually all the waters will end up? You face the deliberate choice whether to slow your pace, ease your burden, and let someone else serve as captain.

Though some swear they will die tethered to the helm, and will even go down with the ship, it is only natural to pack it all in when the load that once seemed light starts to weigh you down. How much better to choose the time of your leaving yourself. You otherwise risk others choosing it for you in circumstances that are unlikely to be to your liking.

“I am still at the peak of my powers,” you say. “What if I am leaving too early?” So no one is yet pushing you out the door. What is it exactly that has you clinging to your desk? Ambition is what got you to your current position. Will you let ambition goad you on for the sake of accomplishment alone? You need no further accolades to know you have achieved more than most. Your competitive nature is what gave you the drive to succeed, but will you let it drive you into an early grave? Even the fastest racehorse will lose the race of time, and in the waning years will lose to many lesser horses she could have bested in her prime. Why stay on the field when the odds are inevitably stacked against you?

There is a certain pride some people take in knowing they have accumulated more wealth and possessions than their peers. I have warned you many times the dangers of measuring your worth by your holdings. If you need reinforcement beyond my own words, I can give it to you from an authoritative voice in the form of Seneca himself:

No one is compelled to pursue prosperity at top speed; it means something to call a halt … instead of pressing eagerly after favoring fortune.

Seneca understood that the choices we make voluntarily are the most meaningful compared to the ones that are forced upon us. A well-ordered mind can find peace with either, but the choices you make when no one is making you are the ones that make you who you are.

Any voluntary choice carries risks, but what of it? Firstly, nothing of value is gained without effort and risk. Did you gain your current position without taking any chances? Looking back over your life so far, were there not many skirmishes where you emerged the victor but could have been vanquished? And secondly, remember that you are always choosing, whether you do it by design or by default: if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. (Lest you think I borrow too freely without settling my accounts, I give thanks for this formulation of wisdom to the Canadian band Rush in their song Freewill.)

So age and decrepitude will have their way with you, whether you prepare for their workings or hold your breath and hope to wish them away. And that’s if you are lucky, for a long life is not guaranteed to any of us. You have long since passed the point of having what you need. Have you reached the point of having enough? Every luxury you learn to live without is a payment on the insurance policy for a happy life. Fine food, expensive wine, sports cars, vacation homes; you can have them all and enjoy them all, but they will all be taken from you, one by one, as surely as the grains of sand drop from the top of the hourglass to the bottom. He that fortifies himself by relinquishing such pleasures voluntarily will suffer no loss from their absence.

My sayings above may have settled our accounts to today, but I wish to be sure I am not leaving you expecting more. I thus draw once more from the reserves of Seneca, who says:

If you keep turning round and looking about, in order to see how much you may carry away with you, and how much money you may keep to equip yourself for the life of leisure, you will never find a way out. No man can swim ashore and take his baggage with him.

It is in anticipation of luxury and the accumulation of things that we forget the best things cannot be acquired with money. The best-rewarded effort is the work we put into our selves.

Be well.

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