Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle: The original article.
I have to admit that I sometimes find it hard to sustain compassion as the financial bad news keeps flooding in. So many sad stories, so many lives derailed … in some cases destroyed … by a few (I hope it’s a few) peoples’ greed and laziness. As a self-protective maneuver it’s tempting to give in to apathy, overwhelming anger or blame-the-victim finger pointing, replacing “There but for the grace of God go I” with “I’d never make that mistake.”
But every now and then I hear a story that replenishes my store of empathy, and — at the risk of sounding cheesy — helps remind me what’s really important in life. This is one of those stories.
John Robbins, best-selling author of “Diet for a New America” and “The Food Revolution,” found out on December 11 that 98 percent of his and his wife’s net worth was suddenly gone, lost in the Madoff Ponzi scam. Like a lot of people, he hadn’t even known his money was invested with Madoff; his investment had been three-times removed from what turned out to be feeder funds that funneled money to Madoff.
Robbins, who lives in Soquel, said the initial shock of discovery was paralyzing, but he’s had to swiftly move past the anger and bitterness because “I can’t afford the distraction.” He’s focusing his energy on building back up some semblance of financial security, a process he finds rather daunting at 61 years of age. Ironically, a few decades ago he walked away from his family business, Baskin Robbins, and its fortune, choosing to dedicate himself instead to exploring and writing about sane, sustainable lifestyles.
After talking with Robbins, I’ve been trying to moderate my thinking about money. While not being able to provide the basic needs for yourself and your loved ones is a serious concern that can’t be handled solely with positive thinking, it seems to me that all of us who are stressing non-stop about our retirement portfolios and job security right now would benefit greatly from injecting some balance into our lives.
I remind myself, when my brain starts to feel as if it’s a paranoid hamster running obsessively on a wheel of worry, that if we become too focused on money we lose sight of why our lives truly matter in the same way that obsessing about one’s death could keep you from living fully. If we’re too worried about the collapse of capitalism-as-we know-it we could cheat ourselves out of the opportunity to simply enjoy everything else that we already have, our families, friends, community, pets and all the little pleasures like that first delicious cup of coffee in the morning.
You grew up in a wealthy family, walked away from that life when you were a young man, and now you’re once again learning to live with less money. Only this time the money you lost was what you earned on your own over the years. Does that make it harder to accept?
Actually, it makes it easier. When it happened, my wife Deo — we’ve been married 42 years — said something to me that I will never forget, and it was extremely helpful. We were both in shock and she put her arms around me and said, “Just think of all the people who sell their souls for money. They do work they don’t like that is of very little, if any value to others, but they do it just for money. If you had sold your soul by taking the Baskin Robbins path, made a lot of money and then lost it, what would you have? You’d have nothing. This loss doesn’t tarnish your work one bit, and it doesn’t tarnish the person you have become.” So, what I’m saying is, I have my integrity.
But it wasn’t your decision to give away your money. It was taken from you.
Yeah, and in that sense it is harder to accept.
Are you angry or bitter about what has happened?
No. I don’t have that luxury. That would just distract me from the work I need to do, rebuilding our lives. There is an added element here in that I am partially responsible for raising our grandchildren, twins, who have special needs. And possibly the hardest part of this for me has been losing the financial ability to provide support to them. But I have a faith in the universe to provide Madoff and the other people complicit in the crime with whatever correctives are needed so that they would never do such a thing again.
Any idea what that corrective action should be?
I think it’s important when people commit enormous crimes that they be brought to justice. We have a very unequal justice system, a criminal injustice system. If a person who doesn’t have much financial wealth and is unable to feed his or her family were to rob a liquor store to get money to buy food, we would put them in jail for a very long time, and yet they might have stolen a few hundred dollars. Here we have a man who has stolen $50 billion, who has wreaked financial devastation at an almost incomprehensible level, and as of our speaking, he is living still in his $10 million penthouse. I don’t think people whose weapon of mass destruction is the computer or the calculator should be exempt, while people who are struggling to meet their basic needs are punished severely. I think that’s a terrible injustice.
You told me a few days ago that we as a culture are “entranced by materialism.” Can you say more about that?
We have defined the good life in terms of accumulating stuff. In our society, if you say somebody is a success, what does that mean? It doesn’t usually mean that they are an emotionally balanced, loving human being. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are creative and artistic and adding beauty to the world. We reserve that word for people who have made a lot of money. I find that to be illustrative of a way of thinking that has caused us great spiritual impoverishment and has caused the planet massive devastation; it has also pitted us against each other by breeding a hyper-competiveness out of which we have exploited other people and harmed them for financial gain.
It doesn’t seem like anything is going to change that, does it?
Well, I think that the economic crisis of today, the foreclosures, the bank failures, the massive unemployment, could be a turning point. There is a rupture taking place. And I believe that provides an opening, as all major illness does, on a personal level. There is an opportunity to redefine progress, which we absolutely need to do, so that we don’t see it merely as the GDP growing but instead in terms of genuine wealth and what really makes our lives worth living … and how we can live sustainably, joyfully and reverently on this planet with one another.
We have had so much money, much of it through debt, that we have been in this orgy of mass consumption. And it’s been really harmful. We don’t have a manufacturing base in this country because we have given it away. We have just been buying cheap goods from China and elsewhere. We don’t have family farms much any more because we have invested massively in agribusiness and agrichemicals and growing food using toxins. We have undermined local communities — we’ve created a food insecurity because we are dependent on large and long supply chains to get our food to us. And we have divorced ourselves from the natural world in the process.
I’m sure you are aware of the growing anger towards the extremely wealthy in this country. Some of that is directed to Wall Street, where executives have collected these huge bonuses at the same time their companies have been bailed out by taxpayers. But there is also anger toward Madoff’s victims themselves. You hear comments from people saying, in effect, “They deserved it. This is divine retribution.” What do you think about that?
I think there is a misperception that most Madoff victims were extremely wealthy people who were greedy, and the media has perpetuated that stereotype. It is certainly accurate in some cases, but I was not a direct investor with Madoff. Our family’s money was in a partnership along with a number of charitable trusts and the endowment of a number of progressive nonprofits, and that money, several steps removed, was handled by Madoff and stolen by him.
Did you even know you were investing with him?
I didn’t know who he was. And there are many, many people like me in this regard who were invested two or three steps removed. What is getting the publicity are the direct investors, and he ran in very, very high finance circles. And there were hedge funds investing — there is one that invested $7 billion with him. There were banks in Asia and Europe investing three or four billion dollars each — big incomprehensible money. He was apparently laundering money from the Russian mafia and Colombian drug cartels. That’s what gets the publicity, and I think that’s what’s happening. But also happening was a tremendous number of charities and charitable foundations and senior citizens and people who were promised a steady not particularly high return on their money. I have read in the papers about returns as high as 20 percent. No one I was involved with ever saw anything like that.
Did you ever think to yourself: “Gee, I have tried to live a good life. Why me?”
No. Self-pity just sucks your energy, you know? What I did feel was a shock, absolute shock. I mean, to the point that there were moments that I thought: Could this kill me? I felt so much shock in my body, and what I was aware of was that in that shock I couldn’t really function. I didn’t think clearly, I couldn’t make decisions, and the situation required immediate action. I had to get over it, because in our particular situation we needed to act pretty quickly in order to not lose our home, in order to not make a suddenly very bad situation even worse.
Do you have a spiritual practice that has helped you get through this?
I do. For 40 years, I have meditated every day, and I’ve done a variety of body/mind practices, including yoga. To me, spirituality is that place where the infinite and the intimate meet. It’s being in the world, relating fully to the suffering that is here, while remaining sourced in the highest potentials of each moment.
Does that include your own suffering?
If you don’t relate honestly and compassionately to your own suffering, you cannot relate honestly and compassionately to anyone else’s.
Did you grow up with any particular religion?
In my family, the religion was capitalism. Everything was measured in financial terms.
How did you become a spiritual person?
I did it through suffering. I felt so lost in a family that was so materialistic — so bereft, so empty, so frightened, really, that there was something missing for me. And obviously, it wasn’t material. We had anything money could buy. We had immense wealth, really.
So what’s next for you?
I’m in the process of writing a book about the economic crisis and what the opportunities might be in it for us all. And in a sense I’m trying to use what’s happened to me in the Madoff theft to make lemonade out of the lemon. Trying to use my experience — I feel like what happened to me — what happened to us — as a family, may happen to a lot of people in slower motion over the next 10 years. I mean, I hope it doesn’t, but I think it might because of unemployment, because of lack of medical insurance.
It’s pretty scary, isn’t it?
We created this “Every Man For Himself” kind of society where, for example, we don’t have universal [medical] coverage. Every other fully industrialized country in the world guarantees basic coverage to all of its citizens. I think it’s a scandal that we don’t. But it’s going to be, I mean, I hope that the new administration is able to use this crisis to create a more compassionate society. If we don’t become more compassionate as a collective, as a society, there is going to be incredible suffering. And I think that if, as individuals, we don’t use our suffering to become more compassionate people, we will have missed an opportunity.
During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.