At a recent conference on aging in San Francisco I interviewed author Mark Miller about his new book “Jolt: Stories of Trauma and Transformation.”

“Jolt” tells powerful stories of people changed by trauma. For instance, Marietta Jaeger and family took a dream vacation to Montana in 1973. Her youngest daughter — 7-year-old Susie — was kidnapped at night while sleeping in a tent at a park campground. A year later the family learned Susie had been abducted and killed by a serial killer. Marietta suffered greatly. Her husband raged for revenge and died of a massive heart attack at age 56. But Marietta eventually found purpose fighting for the abolition of the death penalty.

Now in her late 70s, she lives in a retirement community, visits prisoners at a nearby institution most Tuesdays and gives at least 10 anti-death penalty speeches a year.

“I just feel strongly that life is sacred, and I have a story that could be persuasive,” she said.

In several profiles, people develop out of their pain incredible empathy for others. Like Liz and Stephen Alderman. They lost their son Peter on Sept. 11, 2001, in the World Trade Center. In her grief, Liz wanted to do something that left a legacy about him. While watching ABC’s “Nightline” program, she saw a feature on the “walking wounded,” people scarred by violence in countries with scant mental health services. The idea came to her to set up mental health clinics in post-conflict societies. With time, the Peter C. Alderman Foundation was established in early 2003 and set up clinics in Cambodia, Uganda and Kenya.

Miller is a deft storyteller. His discussion of the science behind so-called post-traumatic growth is nuanced. Trauma is also a universal experience. Miller noted while interviewing older adults for his aging and retirement stories, how many people making midlife career changes turned to work with a social purpose. A common theme was the change came from dealing with something traumatic, a tragedy or troubling incident that led to examining the life they were living and the life they wanted to live.

“Jolt” sheds light on a key insight into personal finance. It opens with a poem by the American poet, Mary Oliver. The last lines are: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ With your one wild and precious life?” That’s the key question to ask. Personal finance isn’t about money. It’s nothing but tactics to support the answers to questions over the years — what you want to do with “your one wild and precious life?”

 

Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, “Marketplace,” commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.