HOW DO YOU STAY centered when markets plunge and volatility is off the charts? One of the ways I cope is by pulling out a wonderful financial book to reread.
In 1951, Alan Watts wrote The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. But his message is as timely today as it was then. “There is a feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity…. Human beings appear to be happy just so long as they have a future to which they can look forward—whether it be a ‘good time’ tomorrow or an everlasting life beyond the grave.”
Needless to say, there isn’t a chapter about stocks, mutual funds or financial planning in the entire book. Watts was an American Buddhist teacher who encouraged people to do everything to be aware and conscious of the present moment and not spend so much time planning for a future that never truly materializes, at least in the way we think it will.
Given the trillions of dollars we spend on “security” in this country—financial, internet, home and homeland, to name a few—we don’t seem to do a good job of living in the insecure todays and tomorrows that are part of life. Planning and preparing aren’t bad things, of course. But what happens when the things we put our faith in start to break down?
I preached a sermon in January 2009 titled The Wisdom of Financial Insecurity. I reflected on the financial bloodbath we’d experienced in 2008. My retirement portfolio dropped 36% and, despite making regular contributions for the previous five years, it was worth less than it had been at the end of 2003. My wife was also in the midst of her second bout with breast cancer. I needed some reminders that, when the future looks uncertain, we have the tools to make it through to better days.
The message I delivered that Sunday isn’t much different from what I would deliver today. The greatest wisdom we can find in financial—or any other—insecurity is to recall those things nearest and dearest to us: our values, our love for others and the practices of our spiritual lives. Such things rarely change.
The rollercoasters of financial markets and life are always going up and down. My wife recovered and is cancer-free more than 12 years later. Our retirement portfolio has quadrupled over those 12 years. I still get a little insecure when the markets and life inevitably change. But I do my best to remember and practice those things that provide me peace and faith.
We humans have been struggling and living with insecurity throughout our existence, which is why ancient wisdom is so helpful. The Talmud instructs that, “The rich man is the man who is satisfied with what he has.” That’s the security and the riches I yearn for.