Patriotism, Pain, and Personal Finance

We are living in historic times, facing unprecedented challenges. To varying degrees, we are all feeling the pain. But suffering and sacrifice are the hallmarks of important junctures in a nation's history. Time to suck it up, America, and fight like hell.

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By Robert Brokamp (TMF Bro)
July 3, 2002

"These are the times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine, author of "Common Sense," the pamphlet that helped inspire the revolution that we will celebrate tomorrow. It has been 226 years since church bells rang out on a late summer afternoon in Philadelphia, heralding the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

But few July 4th celebrations since have transpired during such soul-trying times. Decades from now, our great-great-great-grandchildren will ask us what it was like to live in the very beginning of the 21st century. (This will be possible because, due to advances in biotechnology, our brains will be cryogenically preserved, paid for by Coke in exchange for a logo on our frontal lobes.)

Folks, we are living in truly historic times. The confluence of internal and external struggles present a challenge unlike any America has ever faced. We are at war overseas, and we are fighting CEOs. We have been attacked on our own soil, and we are constantly reminded by our government that it is likely to happen again. We are wallowing in what was left behind by the greatest bull market in history. Enron is a name that will live in infamy, and we were here to watch it fall. In the eye of history, the Internet is still just a babe. And many of us will be able to tell our progeny, "Yes, I remember what New York was like when the World Trade Center towers were still standing."

America has been challenged before, and America has prevailed; the "Greatest Generation" didn't earn its title by living "Leave It to Beaver" lives. And tomorrow, we commemorate a war -- one of the greatest tests a nation can face.

There's a grim side to celebrating something that resulted in great pain, suffering, and loss of life. In fact, we have a penchant for commemorating turbulent, often violent events. Even the holidays that celebrate a significant person's birthday -- Presidents' Day (which is really for Washington and Lincoln), Martin Luther King Day, Christmas -- recall the life of someone who fought a war, led a revolution, and/or ended up getting killed.

Of course, we're not celebrating the violence; we're celebrating the victory. But the results are great, in part because they involved great sacrifice. And for some reason, it's often the sacrifice that means more than the success. I'm sure many more Americans could name the date Pearl Harbor was bombed (Dec. 7, 1941) than could identify the date Japan surrendered (Sept. 2, 1945).

There are many reasons why suffering is so momentus. But here's my simple suggestion: We know that the most important times in history, and the most important things in our lives, require significant sacrifice. I'm not talking discomfort; I'm talking pain. We know that anything worthwhile is worth fighting like hell for, and there's no such thing as a painless fight.

It's not a pleasant thought, but life involves suffering. Buddha made it one of the Noble Truths. (Oops, I just mixed religion into a discussion of America. I better stop soon before I mention that the symbol of Christianity is a tool of execution, supporting my thesis that we value sacrifice -- or this column won't be allowed to be read in public places.)

Righting the wrongs of our times and defeating the forces that want to destroy us will not be "comfortable" -- but since when have we valued the road easiest traveled? Here's a quick history question for you: Whose presidency eventually came to be known as "the era of good feelings"? Answer: James Monroe, who in 1816 defeated the indomitable Rufus King. (If "era of good feelings" brought Ronald Reagan to mind, give yourself partial credit.) What? You don't remember much about the presidency of James Monroe? Of course, you don't. "Good feelings" aren't what gets a president's visage on Mt. Rushmore.

This isn't just a theoretical issue. The current problems have affected us, through a weakened economy, a shrinking stock market, a loss of trust in those that lead and protect us, and the sense that we're just not safe anymore. For each individual, the effects are different, whether in the form of a layoff, a postponed retirement, a loved one overseas, or a loved one taken away forever.

Part of it is the price of living in a free, capitalist country. Part of it is living in a world that will always know evil and avarice. But the damage has been done. Now is the time to do what Americans have always excelled at: sucking it up, making the necessary sacrifices, holding people accountable, and fighting like hell. (By the way, making a sacrifice does not mean the terrorists have won. Could you imagine a World War II poster of Rosie the Riveter, but instead of riveting, Rosie's on a couch, saying, "If I lift a finger, then the Nazis will have won"?)

Since this a personal finance website, I am compelled to urge you to get your finances on war footing. Make sure you have an emergency fund. Make sure you are adequately insured. Make sure that the only money you put in the stock market is money you won't need for five to 10 years. Make sure you urge the government to make changes that will prevent future WorldComs and Andersens. Taking these steps will not completely insulate you from adversity; that is impossible. But there are many people who would be better off today had they taken the aforementioned steps a few years ago. And doing so now will mitigate the impact of any future calamities.

Then you can go about the business of enjoying your life, your liberty, and your pursuit of happiness.

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