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It’s Only After You’ve Lost Everything That You’re Free to Do Anything

Daily Stoic Emails

One day late in the fourth century BC, the Phoenician merchant Zeno set sail on the Mediterranean Sea with a cargo full of Tyrian purple dye. Prized by the wealthy and by royalty, who dressed themselves in clothes colored with it, the rare dye was painstakingly extracted by slaves from the blood of sea snails and dried in the sun until it was, as one ancient historian said, “worth its weight in silver.” This was Zeno’s family trade. They trafficked in one of the most valuable goods in the ancient world, and as it has always been for entrepreneurs, their business was on the line seemingly every day.

On that fateful day, a day not unlike one you may have experienced, Zeno lost everything. His ship wrecked upon the rocks, his cargo lost to the sea. We’re not sure what caused the wreck, but it devastated him financially, physically, emotionally. It could have been the end of his story—the loss could have driven him to drink or suicide, or a quiet ordinary life in the service of others. Instead, it set in motion the creation of Stoicism, one of the greatest intellectual and spiritual movements in history. 

“I made a prosperous voyage,” Zeno later joked, “when I suffered shipwreck.” Indeed, we were all richer for it. 

This story is worth telling and retelling for a reason. Maybe you just found out your husband is leaving you. Maybe you just got news that an accountant has embezzled your hard earned savings. Maybe the pandemic has taken someone you loved. Maybe it’s taken something you loved—a job, a hobby, a way of living. 

These losses have left you hurting, financially, emotionally, psychologically. It’s not unlike the way Zeno was left after his shipwreck. Who wouldn’t feel that pain under similar circumstances? And yet, destabilizing events like this are not entirely bad. They shake things up. They force change. They ask new questions. “It’s only after you’ve lost everything,” Tyler Durden says in Fight Club, “that you’re free to do anything.”

Zeno was freed by his misfortune. Life picked him up and shook off stale tradition and his family obligations. It threw him ashore penniless and lost, sure, but it also introduced him to philosophy. It put him on a path to greatness he could have never conceived of otherwise. 

Your recent misfortune—whatever it is—could be that for you. But only if you choose for it to be.

P.S. This was originally sent on October 6, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.