What If You Lost Everything…?

How would you respond? Could you control your response?

Steven Yates


Photo by Aleksey Oryshchenko on Unsplash

Lately we’ve had a number of fires in the region where my wife and I make our home: Bío-Bío, in south-central Chile, near the city of Concepción. Scuttlebutt has it that the fires are being set, although no culprits have been caught. Our neighborhood hasn’t been targeted or suffered anything worse than bad air, but we’re keeping an eye out.

The affair got me thinking.

What if we were targeted — our neighborhood, that is? What if it came upon us unexpectedly, say in the middle of the night? Assuming we got out of our building safely: what if we lost everything except what we were wearing or could carry? I own a substantial library, for one thing, and it would hurt tremendously if all I could salvage from such an event was a handful of prized volumes amidst clothing, money, and other essentials.

We have a precedent, whose voice echoes at us from over two millennia ago.

The ancient philosopher Zeno of Citium was born in 334 B.C. on what is now Cyprus, son of a wealthy merchant. Most scholars believe he had Phoenician ancestry, although he spoke Greek. When he grew up, he became a wealthy merchant himself. Much of what we know of him we have from Diogenes Laertius’s Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, written a century or so later, a major source for what we know of ancient Greek philosophy.

On a voyage from Phoenicia to Piraeus in 314 B.C., Zeno was shipwrecked off the coast of the Aegean Peninsula near Athens. He lost everything. One can form a mental image of him, clothing disheveled, face distraught, carrying whatever he was able to salvage as he made his way to the city.

He had a choice to make. What happened wasn’t his fault. But dealing with it was his responsibility. No one was going to choose for him how to deal with it.

He could have let it destroy him. Lesser men would have. But not Zeno of Citium. Finding himself stranded in Athens and presumably looking for a new direction for his life, he entered a shop and started perusing a copy of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, which contained an account of the life and ideas of Socrates. At some point he’d consulted an oracle and been told that “he should…



Steven Yates

I am the author of What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory. I write about philosophy (especially the Stoics), health and systems, and the future if we have one.