Ross Levin: Reflections on the riches we leave behind

  • Article by: ROSS LEVIN
  • Updated: November 22, 2008 - 3:17 PM

While markets give and take wealth, only individuals can place the true value on their lives.

I was about to give a speech and, while listening to my host's introduction, I realized that it sounded like my obituary. He talked about what I had accomplished, but it made no mention of who I really was.

The words used to describe me were ones that I had hoped would give me credibility with my audience. Then I got to thinking that some of our problems with money are also because we allow it to define us. We become our possessions or our balance sheets.

As we are "dying" from what the markets have done to our hard-earned savings, maybe we need to take a moment and a deep breath to think about how good we really have it. I thought I would share some lessons that I have learned from friends and acquaintances who have passed away. From these lessons, I hope that I can live my real obituary -- especially the typical husband and father part.

He had a sense of gratitude. One of our seemingly healthiest clients died relatively unexpectedly of a very fast-growing cancer. I do not recall a meeting that I ever had with this person when he and his wife did not in some way express gratitude for the life that they had. Even as the cancer claimed his body, he continued to appreciate all that he had in his life. As sad as it was for his wife to lose him, she would continue to comment on the many great years that they had had together.

In his book "Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier," Robert Emmons describes the long-lasting effects of gratitude because "grateful thinking fosters the savoring of positive life experiences ... may directly counteract the process by which our happiness level returns to its set-point, and makes it harder to take for granted and adapt to our blessings."

While many of us have been dealt difficult hands, some almost impossibly difficult, a sense of gratitude for what is going right can counterbalance those things that are not working out as planned.

He gave to those from whom he expected nothing in return. One of my friends was describing his father's obituary guest book. The father had left his wallet in a gas station in a small town in central Minnesota. When the attendant mailed the wallet back with a note, the father sent a thank-you note and a gift basket. While this incident happened several years ago, the attendant noticed the obituary and described the story in the guest book. The reciprocal goodness from these actions left lifelong impressions with both people.

Emmons says that "life is about giving, receiving and repaying." While we spend so much time focusing on the big things, it is often the little things that create life's richness.

He was interested in much and many. I recently went to a funeral that was filled to the rafters with people who came to pay the last respects to the coach and teacher who had passed away. Most significant to me were the varied walks of life represented by the people who packed the church. In addition to his family, attendees included kids he taught and coached, friends with whom he hunted and fished, fellow parishioners and dozens of others in whose life he took an interest. This was a person who had many passions and was also passionate about others. The crowded worship hall was a testament to how much impact we can have in our daily interactions.

He lightened others' loads. One of our clients who passed away from ALS kept us laughing from beginning to end of each meeting. Even when the illness prevented him from communicating, he never lost the twinkle in his eye. While he was a very successful and even intense business owner, he saw the humor and lightness in much of life. The laughter with which he surrounded himself helped everyone through the trauma of his terrible disease.

She recognized how connected we all are. One of our clients was a woman who died of cancer. She had spent her life volunteering for a number of causes. She viewed her time of service as an acknowledgment of all that she had been given in her lifetime and as a way to support those who had less. "We all begin life dependent on others, and most of us end life dependent on others. In between, we have roughly sixty years or so of unacknowledged dependency. The human condition is such that throughout life, not just at the beginning and end, we are profoundly dependent on other people," Emmons writes.

This has been a difficult year financially for many of us. But the riches that we leave behind often have nothing to do with money.

Spend your life wisely.

Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. He is a certified financial planner and author of "The Wealth Management Index." His Gains & Losses column appears on the fourth Sunday of each month. His e-mail is ross@accredited.com.

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