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No. of Recommendations: 8
Hi vls,

What an extraordinary post! Erasmus, alea iacta est, Hans Wurst, Pulcinella, Ah Q – I am going to go way out on a limb here and guess that you did not go to school in the United States.

I never understand how posts get recommended on these boards, but you certainly get one from me, in spades.

Yes you are right; there is a certain tension that accompanies a great debt. I think it was Publilius who said, “A small debt produces a debtor; a large one, an enemy.”

Homer and I both would prefer that no such tension exist, but we are human, and thus pawns in a greater drama. The Greeks had it right, I think – we are bound by our nature and circumstance to certain fates, and it is hubris to think we can escape those fates. From a modern perspective, we are not slaves to the whims of the gods, but to our own essential natures – forces that exist within us, at levels far below cognition, and far more powerful as well.

There is, perhaps, one saving factor here. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon, it was he who cast the die, leaving it up to the gods to determine the outcome. In the case of my relationship with Homer, the die was cast, in a sense, by the gods, making it somewhat easier to accept the consequences without recrimination or remorse. Thus, I am in no sense Homer’s enemy, but I am, as you note, his debtor, and it is a fact and an obligation that is never far from me.

That said, my debt to Homer is one I embrace and welcome every time that I think of it. There was a horrible sadness bearing down on my family, and Homer stood up and changed the world – wrenched it back from horror to happiness.

This is part of something much larger, at least in my philosophy. And here is where I go off the rails, so to speak – in poker terms, I call your Pulcinella and Ah Q, and raise you a Bottom, a Jaques, and maybe even a Falstaff.

I probably should just stop here; please note that what follows is very much IMO, and not intended to offend -- it sort of guides all of my actions, including my investing.

Over on the MF SA boards, David Gardner gave two of my daughters some of the best advice I have ever heard. They asked him for the single most important idea he could give a young person, and he responded, “Recognize your wake.”

What did he mean by this cryptic comment? Well, my interpretation (it was a brief haiku, for reasons that are way too complicated and weird to go into here) is that David is saying that a person should understand that his or her actions – including investing behavior – have a whole wide range of consequences, and one should act in such a way that he or she is happy about that vast set of consequences. My girls are still thinking about that.

And that is where I am about to go.

You see, I have seen a great deal of suffering in my life, and many terrible things – far more, I suspect, than most of the people on these boards. Without commenting on the larger and more important aspects of theology, I think of the day-to-day universe as a cold, difficult, uncaring place, threatening and dangerous, where we have as a species carved out a safe warm haven by our combined efforts.

When a person beats cancer after a long regimen of surgery and chemotherapy, I find it – just my opinion – strange that his or her impulse is so often to thank God. How about at least adding thanks to the thousands of scientists and doctors whose work over decades and even centuries led to the development of the drugs and procedures that resulted in a cure? How about the doctors and nurses who spent sleepless nights at school and in internships developing the skills that allowed them to operate successfully? How about . . . well, you get the idea.

We live and thrive because we have each other’s backs – Homer is a dramatic and special example, but Louis Pasteur may have saved many of us through his work; the people who figured out how get clean water to millions of people living in close proximity probably saved many of our lives, and the list goes on and on.

We have risen to great heights not because of the day-to-day intervention of a benevolent deity – I have seen so many situations where any such intervention, if it were available at all, was surely called for, and never forthcoming – and not because we compete with each other, with “better” people and ideas winning, but because, in the end, we help each other. For me, relief and succor in day-to-day life does not come from mysterious sources; it comes from the sweat and toil of countless billions of people over millennia, building cultures and knowledge that support us against the forces arrayed against us – disease, hunger, thirst, violence (including from our own brethren, sadly), etc.

So, vls, let me bring this strange excursion back around to the thoughts you raised: I owe Homer an immeasurable debt, yes – but, you see, I also owe vast debts to countless other people, the people who built a society where babies do not routinely starve, tooth decay is not fatal, a broken limb is not a lifetime sentence of deformity and disability, etc., etc.

This perspective in no way reduces my feeling of debt to Homer, but it makes it easier to handle, because I owe so many debts there is no way to keep count. I have no illusions; I was in fact born on third base. I know I did not hit a triple; I just got lucky.

What does this have to do with investing? Well, honestly, it is a much broader point, but probably this post is in danger of getting bounced, and it was a lot of work, so let me try to save it with some investing relevance:

I have no desire to invest in such a way that I “beat” someone (well, OK, I want to beat Anurag -- just kidding : ) ), and I do not want my achievements in life to be a long list of victories over other people. I want to invest in companies that make the world a better place – no PM, no DEO, heck, with what we know now, no WMT! And I want my list of achievements to include things like advancing scientific knowledge, helping businessmen do deals where everybody does well and society benefits, being a good husband, father and neighbor, etc.

I want to recognize my wake, and to be pleased with it.

Again, I have no intention here to offend people, and I am not suggesting that other people should make the some moral judgments that I do. Also, I tried to limit my “philosophical/religious” comments to the quotidian world, and to avoid the larger issues. Obviously, I have zero special knowledge in these areas; any implication to the contrary is truly unintended.

Hey, vls, maybe this is a good last post . . . .

Rich
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