I had a cancellation this morning and was in desperate need of a haircut. I’m an old school guy and so get my haircut at Vincent Oliver’s Hippodrome in Woodlawn.
Vincent is in his 70’s now. He graduated from Woodlawn High School , which is only a block away from his barber shop, in 1950-something. The majority of his clientèle are old classmates, who gather at his shop to gossip about old friends and reminisce about the good ol’ days.
Vincent has old barber chairs that glide up and down and must weight a ton a piece. He shaves the back of your neck with hot lather and a straight razor, and you leave smelling of Aqua Velva. I truly love that place and I don’t know what I’ll do when he retires.
This morning there were a few guys ahead of me and I had time to read while I listened to them carry on about military experience, vintage cars and who was still alive and what they were up to. As I scrolled through my inbox on my phone I ran across today’s post from the Art of Manliness, Count No Man Happy Until the End is Known.
Brett McKay gives us a tale from Herodotus of the rich King Croesus and his visit from the Athenian sage Solon.
After several days of wining and dining, Croesus asked Solon who, in all of his travels, was the happiest man he had ever met. The spoiled king expected Solon to reply that he was, but was dismayed to hear Solon give the name of a fellow Athenian, and a man of common birth at that.
When Croesus expressed his outrage Solon went on to explain that the man in question had lived in Athens, where his local government had given him the freedom to prosper, he had had several fine sons whose wives had borne grandchildren. At the end of his life he died bravely, on the battlefield, alongside his countrymen while driving out an enemy force. He was honored with a public funeral.
Croesus could not make sense of this but felt surely he must be the second happiest man and so asked Solon again.
The wise man replied with the names of two Argive brothers and went on to explain how the Argives valued family and physical fitness. The two boys’ mother wanted to make a pilgrimage to Hera’s temple, but didn’t have the oxen to pull her cart the many miles to the holy site. The two boys strapped themselves to the heavy cart and conveyed her the entire way. Once there they were greeted by a crowd that congratulated the boys on their strength and their mother for having raised such fine sons.
In an expression of her own gratitude the mother prayed to Hera that she might convey on her sons “the greatest blessing that can befall mortal men.” After a day of feasting and celebrating at the festival of Hera, the two boys lay down in the temple for a nap. Hera granted their mother’s request by letting the boys die in their sleep. The Argives celebrated these two by erecting statues in their honor.
Croesus was flabbergasted. How could three dead men be happier than he?
Solon admitted that as rich as he was he did have certain advantages. Food and shelter and the basic necessities were pretty much a given for him, but his money by no means gave him a monopoly on all that lead to true happiness.
The sage’s happy list included civic service, raising healthy children, self sufficiency, a sound body and honoring the god’s and one’s family. Besides, being rich brings it’s own slew of issues, in the immortal words of The Notorious B.I.G., “Mo money, mo problems.”
In addition, life is constantly changing. Today you can be riding high, living the good life, but tomorrow it could all be gone, the market crashes, a Tsunami hits, those pictures go public.
“This is why,” Solon finally concluded to Croesus, “I cannot answer the question you asked me until I know the manner of your death. Count no man happy until the end is known.”
Croesus would have none of this and showed Solon the door. Years later he would have a first hand example of exactly what he meant. He lost a son in a hunting accident, then misreading an oracle he launched an ill planned attack on the Persian Empire only to find himself hog tied atop his own funeral pyre about to be barbecue. In a grand moment of “Oh!” he is recorded as having cried out, “Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Count no man happy until the end is known!”
To my mind, the big message is, for us it’s too early to tell. Call yourself happy? Right now you might be. Are you miserable? You might be that, for the moment. Whatever you are it’s bound to change. Don’t become too attached to anything.
Which is not to say don’t form attachments. A life devoid of connections is a life devoid indeed, but recognize, things change. I have a string of mala beads, a Buddhist rosary, if you will. I’ve worn it around my wrist for well over ten years. Yesterday, for the first time I can remember, it came up missing.
After a good thirty minutes of looking for it I had to admit, it couldn’t be found. I texted Trey and asked him to check with the cleaning service, they had been at the gym that afternoon, cleaning the cat walk that ran over my desk.
As I left the gym I had to acknowledge, despite my disappointment, that perhaps this was just another lesson in impermanence. On the way home, resolved to live without what had become a part of my personality, Trey called to tell me it had been mistaken for trash but recovered.
The lesson? Fortune turns on a dime. The key to riding it is to focus on what you can control and let the rest go.
How you behave in the world is under your control. How you act in relationships, both on a community and a personal level, is under your control. Contrary to public opinion, your health is under your control. You decide what you eat. You decide how much rest you get. You decide how much exercise you get.