I’m reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1951 novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, about the Roman emperor and written as though it was his own journal as he is facing the end of his life. It’s addressed to the future emperor, Marcus Aurelius. I could only find a paperback copy but was eager to have it. A book like this dealing with Roman history and Stoicism and Marcus Aurelius is right in my wheelhouse. I, Claudius remains the most delightful novel I’ve read and helped spark my fascination with ancient Rome.
Memoirs of Hadrian is no I, Claudius, though. It’s not the exhilarating, page-turning romp through Roman scandal and political intrigue. Yourcenar’s book is a quiet, reflective review of a notable life as our protagonist is facing his final days.
I came across this remarkable passage yesterday. It’s Hadrian looking back on his years as a young army officer:
I determined to make the best of whatever situation I was in; during my years of dependence my subjection lost its portion of bitterness, and even ignominy, if I learned to accept it as a useful exercise. Whatever I had I chose to have, obliging myself only to possess it totally, and to taste the experience to the full. Thus the most dreary tasks were accomplished with ease as long as I was willing to give myself to them. Whenever an object repelled me, I made it a subject of study, ingeniously compelling myself to extract from it a motive for enjoyment. If faced with something unforeseen or near cause for despair, like an ambush or a storm at sea, after all measures for the safety of others had been taken, I strove to welcome this hazard, to rejoice in whatever it brought me of the new and unexpected, and thus without shock the ambush or the tempest was incorporated into my plans, or my thoughts. Even in the throes of my worst disaster, I have seen a moment when sheer exhaustion reduced some part of the horror of the experience, and when I made the defeat a thing of my own in being willing to accept it. … And it is in such a way, with a mixture of reserve and of daring, of submission and revolt carefully concerted, of extreme demand and prudent concession, that I have finally learned to accept myself. –Memoirs of Hadrian, pp. 44-45
This is life-changing insight explained with profound clarity. “Whatever I had I chose to have…” Consider some unpleasant circumstance or event, from something as trivial as having to wash dishes to something as potentially catastrophic as facing a tragic loss. If you welcomed this thing you have no control over and accepted it fully, embracing, even, something that seems unembraceable, imagine the transformation in your psychology. Accept what is and use it to learn and grow and find unforeseen opportunities. Fling yourself fully into even the worst circumstances that befall you. Don’t resist. Welcome whatever comes your way and grow your character and peace of mind in the process.