Of Spilled Milk, Water over the Dam and Reality Intrusions
When I am in the middle of a righteously indignant “I’ve been wronged” temper tantrum the last thing I want to hear is the phrase “There’s no sense crying over spilled milk”. Or that other classic, “It’s just water over the dam/under the bridge.” Hearing those while stamping my feet and blowing my top sure does ruin a good self indulgent rant.
Whilst in the midst of a particularly satisfying emotional rant the other day a twenty year old memory flashed in my mind that immediately took all the fun out of my naval gazing and promptly brought me back to Earth. The only thing worse than having a fresh dose of humility stuffed in your face is when you are doing your own stuffing. It really is a shame we cannot un-remember select items and must resort to denial to purge the mind of uncomfortable truths and other disturbing miscellanea.
I was four years into my new career as a ‘financial adviser’, more accurately described as a financial ‘products’ salesman. One of my clients, a husband and wife hovering around retirement age, had been with me from nearly the beginning and I knew them well. He had just recently retired since his company pension could not be increased by working additional years, and she was two years removed from her own work retirement. All she wanted to do was reach the ‘official’ company retirement age so she could take her full pension. While waiting out the clock she was putting nearly everything she earned into her company 401(k) as well as her own personal retirement investments.
The wife, let’s call her Anne, called me a few minutes after I walked into the office. She was extremely excited and agitated, and for the first minute or so I could not understand her at all. Once I was able to get her to slow down and fill in some background her excitement became quite understandable. It seemed she had won the lottery and wanted my advice before heading down to the headquarters to claim her one million dollar plus prize.
Once I could get a word in edge wise I suggested she immediately come down to my office so we could talk about her options. I also suggested she engage a lawyer before claiming the prize because I was certain I was not the expert here in some of the legal matters she would eventually wish she had considered. Unfortunately she would have none of that and informed me that as soon as she hung up the phone she was headed to the lottery office with her husband Harold. All she wanted to know was if she should take the ‘lifetime’ twenty annual payments or the lump sum after taxes. I suggested the lump sum, knowing full well that the twenty ‘annuity’ payments were based upon a below market interest rate.
Just after lunch Anne (with Harold in tow) showed up at my office looking like she had been run over by a Mack truck. Distraught and anguished were not sufficient enough terms to describe her state of mind or physical demeanor. Within a minute of sitting at my desk she was in tears and sobbing, with poor Harold completely lost and unable to console his wife. I rushed to close my office door as her explanation spilled out.
In a nut shell she had not won a million dollars. There had been a mistake last night when the local TV outlet had broadcast the winning lottery numbers, the norm along with newspapers for dispersing lottery announcements before the Internet age had bloomed. One of the numbers displayed had been incorrect (though interestingly I found out later the voice over had given the correct number) which meant one of the numbers on her ticket was not a winning number. That was the ‘bad’ news. The ‘good’ news was that she had been the sole second place winner, the prize of which was a not so paltry one hundred thousand dollars after taxes in one lump sum.
However for Anne this was not good news at all. For sixteen short hours she had been a millionaire and had mentally spent all that money on retirement vacations, new automobiles, gifts for the children etc. As she handed over a check for a little more than one hundred thousand, to be deposited into her investment account, if you were watching her body language you would have thought she was handing Satan her engraved one way ticket to hell.
Long story short it was all downhill from there. While the lottery winnings enabled Anne to retire early rather than wait for her full pension payment (it was only a matter of 4% and she still received full health benefits) and as a bonus pay off the remaining balance on her mortgage, she rapidly slipped into despondency and despair. A few years later she and Harold divorced and she became somewhat of a recluse, drinking heavily and running through what remained of the divorce proceeds in a few short years. I lost touch with her shortly thereafter until I read her obit a few years further down the road. It was sad, so very sad indeed.
This was the memory that flashed across my mind while in the middle of my delicious rant. Talk about rant interruptus. The impression the memory cemented in my mind, both back then in real time and now upon reflection, was to always examine what is ‘real’ and what is not. While my anger or upset was most certainly ‘real’ it was not actually based upon anything real, but rather a sense of outrage that I had been harmed, either directly or indirectly just like Anne.
For those keeping score at home let us revisit what was ‘real’ with the situation Anne found herself in and how she reacted to her windfall. Anne never actually won the million dollars; it was never hers to begin with. It was her perception of a fictitious ‘reality’ that had defined her ‘belief’ that she had won. She never ‘realized’ the winning ticket, but she did possess the winning second place ticket.
What would have been her reaction if, instead of thinking she had won a million, she correctly understood she had ‘only’ won one hundred thousand? I suspect she would most likely have been ecstatic; possibly as excited as she was when she called me with the ‘news’ of winning one million.
In other words in her mind, and to a lesser extent in her husband’s, she made ‘real’ something that was not actually a fact or truth mostly because she ‘believed’ it to be real. And her belief was formed primarily because the information came from an authority….in this case the local television station. If her neighbor had told her she had won a million bucks I suspect she would have treated the news with a great deal more skepticism. Let the buyer of the belief beware.
Worse, because she had been emotionally and psychically imprinted in a significant manner with the false ‘news’ that she had won a million dollars, when her belief was proven wrong even the truth that she was in fact one hundred thousand dollars richer, was of little to no consolation. It cannot be overstated how deeply and completely Anne believed she was a millionaire and the degree of emotional trauma that was self inflicted when she discovered she was not.
I must warn the reader not to dismiss this story as immaterial to you or your loved ones because what happened to Anne happens to you and me on a daily basis, only for us the discovery and assimilation time frame is greatly stretched out compared to Anne’s sixteen hour trip from normalcy to millionaire to Satan’s hell. On a daily basis we emotionally deal with truths that are no longer true….or more accurately in many cases were never true to begin with. Slowly but surely ‘reality’ intrudes into our mind numbing denial, and soon enough another castle rampart falls to the inevitable decay of the truth invasion.
While Anne may be perceived as emotionally unstable and even intellectually dishonest, and there is no doubt that her inability to cope with the emotional letdown of reality intruding upon her believed fantasy certainly suggests deeper emotional issues, are we not all to some degree or another clinging to past ‘truths’ that never were and might never be?
Because I most certainly was clinging to mine when I exercised my freedom to act emotionally childish and wallow in my own self-indulgent rant. Just like Anne I believed something that was not actually true, though in my case it was more a conglomerate of conditioned concepts rather than just one simple belief. I was done wrong by a ‘system’ that promised truth and justice for all. Yet when the Cavalry was supposed to gallop in and save the day none appeared, and I was indignant. How dare they forget about poor little me?
I suspect “We the People” will be suffering endless disappointment and emotional trauma as we descend the social and financial ladder to Satan’s place. And while this fall from grace might be stretched out over a period of ten, twenty, even thirty years, similar to the fall of the Soviet Union both before and after the actual dissolution of the Communist bloc, a decline they are only now beginning to recover from, a fall it most definitely will be.
The key here is not what you and I can do to stop the inevitable. The key is what are you and I doing to prepare emotionally, then physically and financially, to weather the storm already on the horizon. For me the self indulgent rants must stop as I turn my face towards reality and the gathering storm clouds.
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