I was one of the many whose life was changed by Bernard Madoff. My situation was a little different than most people’s I know in that I didn’t have a lot of money. I’d sold a very small cottage in upstate New York and I had had that money in the stock market.
And when the stock market began to do its thing in the Fall of 2008, I took all my money out of the stock market. I had a friend who had her money in a fund that was basically showing moderate, steady returns. I felt the only responsible thing to do with my money was move it into a fund where it wouldn’t be quite so much in jeopardy.
So I took what was left of it and put it into a local fund and two months later – I had received a total of $1.41 in interest on this fund — I received a voicemail that said that Bernard Madoff had been arrested and that the fund had been totally invested with him. And I knew that all of my savings were gone. That was everything I had in the world.
So I stood there with the phone, and when the voicemail lady said, “To repeat this message, press one. To save it, press two,” I pressed the number one over and over because I wasn’t really getting the full impact of what was being said. I went into kind of a stunned, numb space.
And in that numb zone of paralysis, I started to hear the words of a poem. The poem was one that I hadn’t thought of in a really long time and it wasn’t even a poem I had ever really been drawn to. I knew it because some of my workshop students had worked with this poem about six months earlier, so I had heard it over and over. And the line that I heard was “Before you know what kindness really is, you must lose things.”
So, I’m standing there with the phone in my hand still and the voicemail lady doing her thing and I’m hearing the first few lines of this poem. And I put down the phone and thought, “This is nuts. I need to do something. I don’t know what it is, but it’s probably not Google a poem.’”
And yet, I literally could hear nothing else. I remembered the first few lines of the poem which are:
“Before you know what kindness really is, you must lose things. Feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go.”
So, I Googled the poem. I read it and it was as if it spoke directly to what I was experiencing. It was as if the poet Naomi Shihab Nye was in the room with her hand on my shoulder saying, “This is so much more important than losing money. What’s happening here is much more profound and can take you on a much deeper journey than bitterness and survival anxiety. Listen to this.” And the poem, called Kindness, really became my prayer.
I went over to the home of my friend who also had her money invested with Madoff so we could comfort each other. I arrived holding this poem, planning to read it to her, and she met me at the door holding the same poem.
I slept on her couch for a few days because her husband was away and we just wanted to kind of walk through the crisis together. Every morning and every evening we would read the poem together. And I would work on learning it by heart.
I feel that that poem certainly saved my sanity and, in a deep way, really saved my life at that period of time. It allowed that crisis to be a door that opened into a much more profound relationship with my own life and with people all over the world, and, ultimately, with true kindness. The Dalai Lama says, “Kindness is my religion.” And through that poem and the Madoff experience, I understand that.
Don’t get me wrong: I would be happy to get my money back. But I would certainly hold it with much more wisdom, not just about investments, but about life and about pain and about connection between human beings.