Money and possessions are incidental to the deeper things that are important, like helping others or time with family.
On a recent family trip, we were offered 40 camels and a pottery business for the hand of one of our twin teenage daughters in marriage. While there have been one or two days in her life when we may have considered a dowry of far less -- say, a one-eyed cat and a cold Slushy, we rejected the proposal immediately.
After the last 12 months, I am more aware than ever that things cannot replace what truly matters in life.
Due to the erratic year in the markets, I had basically put much of my life on hold. I felt that I couldn't be out of the office for five minutes given all the turbulence in the economy and my perceived need of constant client contact and hand-holding.
In retrospect, this decision was not one of the better ones I have made. The overdue family vacation, from which we just returned, has not only refreshed me, it has helped to refocus me -- which will help me better serve these clients.
William Stafford, in his poem "The Way It Is,'' writes:
There's a thread that you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die: and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.
Stafford's words hit home for me and they pose a fundamental question upon which all of your financial planning should be based: What is the thread of your life?
It may be many things, but it certainly is not money. Money can only be a byproduct. If you are a successful surgeon, your thread may be saving the lives of others. You may be paid well for it. But if you are a social worker, your thread may also be saving the lives of others. Maybe you don't get paid quite so well. Does that make the meaning of your work any less important?
For many of us, our financial worlds have changed. We simply don't have as much money as we had a year ago. We are more aware of how tenuous certain aspects of our lives are. If we pay attention, not only do our balance sheets look different, but our work does as well. But this does not mean that times are worse, it only means that they are different.
Some of the suffering that we are experiencing can bring us closer to our thread. It is easy to get swept along when things are going well. We build grand plans with great visions. We put aside family in the name of earning more to provide for the family. We place enormous pressures on our portfolios to grow so that we can buy a better or a bigger or a different life.
One of my good friends was diagnosed and treated for cancer during the short time we were gone on vacation. This was someone whose thread has always been about connecting people with the resources that would help them enrich their lives. So it was no surprise that because his thread has been about service, the many people whose lives he touched rallied around him to help him get incredible medical care and treatment, and will provide him and his family with ongoing encouragement and support. Time unfolds, tragedies happen, people get hurt. Our thread endures.
If you are rapidly racing to recapture what you have lost, now is a good time to rediscover what you already have. The market is going to come back to previous levels, probably more slowly than we hope. The economic climate is going to improve, but not without its stumbles. It will be very tempting to anticipate the next correction and its ensuing rebound. But the strength of this current rebound should have taught you that predicting short-term market movements is nearly impossible.
Rather than attempting this, if you need some money in the short term, sell some of your stocks. If you don't, then rebalance. But far more important than getting this timing just right is rekindling the fire of what you want to do with this stage of your life. If you were to strip away all the accoutrements of the life that you have created, what is essential to you right in this moment? If you have found yourself in a holding pattern, prepare to launch.
Spend your life wisely.