16. If I Were a Rich Man

by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Losing a lot of money, just like suddenly making millions, forces you to confront your real priorities in life.

The following excerpt is from Rabbi Blech's book, 'Taking Stock',(available at Amazon in the Book Department) which is the result of his personal odyssey riding the roller  coaster of wealth to the top and then hopelessly and frighteningly careening to the bottom.

You're depressed because you lost a fortune. So what is it that you can't do now that you would have done before?

Losing a lot of money, just like suddenly making millions, forces you to confront your real priorities in life. To help you to understand yourself -- your real needs, desires and values -- truthfully answer this telling question: What do you believe is missing in your life that having a great deal of money would supply?

Listen to this story and see if it relates at all to you.

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow-finned tuna. The banker complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied: "Only a little while." The banker then asked why he didn't stay out longer and catch more fish. The Mexican said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs.

The banker was puzzled and then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, swim a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, Señor."

The banker scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you'll have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middle man, you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles, and eventually to New York City where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But, Señor, how long will this all take?"

To which the banker replied, "Five to ten years."

"But what then, Señor?"

The banker laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company's stock to the public and become very rich. You would be worth millions!"

"Millions, Señor? Then what?"

The banker said, "Then you would retire, move to a small coastal fishing village, take siesta with your wife, play with your kids, stroll to the village in the evenings where you would sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."

How remarkable. The very things that the fisherman could look forward to at the end of a long and arduous process that would require him to put his life on hold are those all-important parts of life he already enjoys in his semi-poverty.

What would having more do for him? Prevent him from presently enjoying family and friends, laughing and living, being independent and free of the worries associated with major financial investments. And of course we all realize that the five to ten years the banker estimated would be all the time needed will stretch out far longer as greed for more as well as unexpected difficulties turn the project into a lifelong journey. How much smarter to remember the advice of the first-century Roman philosopher, Juvenal: "It is sheer madness to live in want in order to be wealthy when you die."

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire

Regis Philbin took America by storm as he turned the program Who Wants To Be A Millionaire into the most popular show on television. As several critics have pointed out, the producers of the show didn't even put a question mark at the end of the title. After all, what they imply is that it isn't even a question. Everyone wants to get rich.

Well, here's a surprise for you. In an exclusive AARP Modern Maturity survey, "Money and the American family" [Modern Maturity, May, 2001], 27 percent of men and a startling 40 percent of women said "no" when asked if they would like to become wealthy. More than half defined wealthy as acquiring $500,000 or less in total assets. In fact, only eight percent said it would take $1,000,000 to make them feel wealthy.

How can we explain why so many people have an aversion to getting rich? Four out of five of those surveyed said they feared that wealth would turn them into greedy people who consider themselves superior. Three-fourths of the respondents said that wealth promotes insensitivity. Even those who say they would like to be wealthy share that negative view of how the rich behave.

To their credit, most Americans are smart enough to realize that money can't buy such intangibles as self-esteem, family togetherness, happiness or love. Even if they had all the wealth in the world, they realize that what really matters in life isn't based on financial status. In response to the crucial question, "Can money buy peace of mind?" 52 percent of Americans said "no." That means the majority of people realize that having money won't be the answer to all of their problems. In fact, many have come to the opposite conclusion: A sudden fortune can be a curse instead of a blessing.

"Help Me, Doctor, I'm Rich"

Dennis Pearne is a clinical psychologist and a pioneer in the emerging field of wealth counseling. His specialty is treating clients with "Sudden Wealth Syndrome." Those are people who inherited large sums of money, won the lottery, or sold their Internet businesses for billions of dollars.

Now they were faced with the dilemma of "What do I do next?" How many cars can you buy? How many homes can you own? As the Yiddish saying goes, even the wealthiest man can't eat more than one dinner.

Dr. Pearne says, "Sudden wealth creates issues that go way beyond money. The money can cause traumatic responses and lead to shame, anger, confusion, isolation and guilt, among other things. With inherited money, you hear stories of what goes on in families -- the control game, blackmail, gender discrimination, resentment children have at being raised by nannies, and a whole host of psychological issues."

The way Pearne has helped people the most is by working with them on a value-based exploration in order to focus in on proper priorities. Together, the "wealth counselor" and the "sudden wealth victim" explore basic questions of life: What is the relative importance of living a wealthy lifestyle versus accumulating more wealth versus helping friends and family versus philanthropy? What do you do with the money you will never need for yourself? How would you want the world to improve -- and what can you do now personally to turn your ideal into reality?

One of the most striking things Pearne has found is that when his clients seriously reconsider their options in life, they invariably choose to devote themselves to social change.

"Money is a neutral object, a tool that can be used positively or negatively," he said. "The power of receiving a lot of money is so great it can destroy someone's life or empower someone to have a much better life. It all depends on how you deal with it."

What Would You Do?

There's no better way to understand a person, psychologists say, than to see how he spends his money. "Show me your checkbook stubs," said the noted psychologist, Erich Fromm, "and I'll tell you everything about yourself." Self-indulgence or selflessness? Wine, women and song or charitable works? Hedonism or helping others? Forsaking God because you no longer need Him or feeling more spiritually connected out of gratitude for your good fortune?

I know we all claim we would have the right priorities. But what did you do with your money when you had it? Is it possible that it's gone because God wants you to rethink what's really important and how you will handle wealth if God chooses to bless you with it once more? Answer yourself honestly, and you may discover that losing it the first time was a blessing. Getting another chance some day in the future will make you not only rich but also fulfilled and blessed.

"What would you do with it?" is not just a financial question, but a spiritual one as well. Perhaps we need to know the right answers before God will give us the opportunity to carry out our wishes.

Purchase your copy of Rabbi Blech's, Taking Stock, (available at Amazon in the Book Department).