I was on vacation on a Russian Icebreaker in Antarctica when I got a page to go up to the bridge for a satellite phonecall. When I picked up the phone it was my wife Geneen, and she said a few words that turned my world upside-down. She said, "Bernie Madoff has been arrested. His entire fund was a scam." What she didn't need to say out loud but we both knew in that moment was that we had just lost our entire life savings.
We both felt incredibly anxious inside and fearful about the future. Could we even afford to keep living in our house? Everything about our lives was up in the air.
After a few minutes one of us had the presence of mind to say, "You know what---we are no longer the kind of people who can afford to talk on the satellite telephone at $10 a minute!" So we hung up.
A wave of fear washed over me when I hung up the phone. Wherever I've traveled in the world I've always been able to get home... but this was Antarctica! There was no way home.
You can see what happens next on Matt's video What Bernie Madoff Couldn't Steal From Me here:
Shortly after I returned from Antarctica, Geneen and I went to a dinner party for friends of ours who had all invested in Madoff--- actually I shouldn't call it a dinner party, it certainly did not feel like a party--- it was more like a wake, or at any rate, a potluck support group with lots of food. Early in the meeting, one of my friends posed the question, "If you had to do it all over again, would you do anything differently?" And the first two people who responded both said something that amazed me--- they both said, "No, I wouldn't change anything at all. The things I've learned about myself, the changes in me--- how awake and alive I feel now--- I wouldn't trade that for any amount of money."
I remember thinking to myself, "Well, I have certainly learned a lot from this experience, but I definitely wouldn't mind having some of the money back, too!"
But I've been slowly starting to understand what they meant---that there are things in life that are more valuable than money. And one of those things for me is the very strong sense of community that has developed among the Madoff investors. My work before the Madoff crisis was about building community through laughter and play, and now I have an even stronger sense of community in action. In my own circle of friends, in response to the Madoff betrayal people are moving in with each other, supporting each other through bankruptcy and divorce, and helping each other keep their heads above water in all sorts of everyday ways.
Some genuine "wealth" in our lives is always created when we reach out to each other, when we make connections with each other, when we form a community together in times of crisis.
And that kind of wealth does not decrease in difficult economic times--- if anything, it increases.
All of which is not meant in any way to justify Madoff's monstrous actions. In case you haven't heard, Madoff will be sentenced on June 29, and my vote is that Judge Chin gives him the maximum possible sentence.
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