All of our upbringings were different. Some were given two parents. Others only one. Maybe it took a village to raise you. Either way, we didn’t get to decide who our mom was or who our dad was, if they got divorced, if they were present, if our stepparents were a blessing or a nightmare. It was all outside our control.
None of us choose our circumstances and we certainly didn’t choose our parents.
Yet every one of us, as Seneca said, gets to choose whose children we decide to be. In ancient Rome this was even more true than it sounds, because it was common for people to be adopted into families. Seneca’s brother, Lucius Annaeus Novatus, for instance, was adopted by a man named Gallio, whose name he eventually took (and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because Seneca’s brother is in the Bible). Marcus Aurelius didn’t choose for Hadrian to set in motion their succession plan, he didn’t select Antoninus as his stepfather, but Marcus did choose to attach himself to that kind and virtuous man, modeling his life on that goodness and greatness. (Conversely, one of the things we hear from the ancients about Commodus, Marcus’ son, was the first thing the man did after the death of his father was reject all the tutors and guidance that had been laid down for him).
Whose children will we be? Whose footsteps will we follow in? What tradition will we follow? That is the question of our lives. It is the question that will determine the course of our lives. Will we go the way of Marcus or Commodus? Will biology and circumstances be our destiny? Or will we choose a brighter, fresher, better path?
And for no one is this question more urgent and essential than for those of us who choose to have children ourselves. We must decide what lineage we will give our family, what legacy they will inherit. Will we simply pass along what we grew up with? Or will we choose to give what we didn’t get? To turn over a new leaf, to do better, to hold ourselves to a higher standard?
Each of us has the ability to choose an Antoninus as our model, a Fred Rogers, an aunt who showed us what unconditional love and support (as well as hard work and decency) was. We can choose to make the most important choice there is: Whose children we will be…and thus who our children’s grandparents will be.