Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

November 23, 2008

The Courage to be Cheap

Rev. Catherine Torpey

I’ve been thinking a lot about Willy Loman lately.  You know – the main character in Arthur Miller’s tragic play, Death of a Salesman.  Willy Loman was a man who spent his whole life believing that there was a formula to material success.  In his heart of hearts, Willy knows that he does not know this formula – but Willy Loman believes that faking it is a way to approach the real thing.  Faking it will get you closer and closer to the truth, closer to success, closer to the finish line – faking it might get you close enough to touch the real thing.

Willy’s whole life, Willy’s whole self-image is bound up in his image of himself as a successful salesman.  Willy had once caught a glimpse of an old man, an old salesman, who even at the age of 84, could sit in his home, and because of the relationships he’d built, still sell goods, still make money.  Based – apparently – on that momentary, cursory glimpse into a man’s life, Willy mapped the trajectory of his own life, determined that he would be – determined that he was – the kind of salesman who made good money, who developed friendships everywhere he went, who would build up so much good will among so many people that even in lean times, people would buy his goods from him.  Willy imagined that through the force of his personality, he could make himself a hotshot.

But Willy’s life collapses around him, when, at the end of his career, it becomes evident that he’d never achieved what he’d so desperately wanted to achieve, never been what he wanted to be, never been what he’d talked himself into believing he was.

Something about Willy Loman’s story has been resonating recently as I see the news reports day after day, of our whole country having to face the difference between the fantasy we’d been living in, and the reality that is crashing down around us.  Something about a person who defines himself based on a very narrow notion of what success means – something about that resonates.  Something about a person who discounts what is good and solid and reliable in his life, and instead focuses on a fantasy of what will impress others – something about that story is resonating these days.

Whom is Willy trying to impress?  Why can’t Willy face what is true, what is solid and reliable in his life?  Everything in Willy’s life is measured against a fantasy vision of how his life was meant to be, and it makes everything that is seem unbearable.

Something about this story has been resonating with me during these last few weeks, as the delusions we’d been weaving as a society have been collapsing around us.  There is something very Willy Loman-esque about our society as a whole: the importance placed on a rather shallow understanding of success.  Like Willy Loman, we have been attached to an image of success, desperate to cling to it, faking it much of the time.

I’ve been recalling a conversation I had with a young man a couple of years ago.  He was about 30 years old, and he was a risk analyst for AIG.  Yes, AIG – the American International Group, that enormous insurance corporation which $85 billion of our tax money was used to bail out in exchange for an 80% equity stake in the company.  That AIG.  Two years ago, I had never heard of AIG until this fellow told me he worked there.  He explained to me that it was, by far, the largest insurer in the world, and that it was insuring just about everything.  Since I’d never heard of a risk analyst before, I spoke to him for a long time, trying to figure out what such a person does all day, and how one goes about actually analyzing risk.  I don’t remember now very much of what he said because, quite frankly, I couldn’t wrap my head around it.  But what I do remember was his statement, sprinkled throughout the conversation, that because of the incredible network of risk analysis, AIG knew exactly and precisely what how risky each activity was that it was engaged in, and how to manage that risk so that there was, in essence, no risk at all.  He repeated several times that this company knew exactly what it was doing.  He said it with great admiration and complete believability.  He was absolutely convinced that the sophisticated analysis of risk had successfully and quite cleverly succeeded in eliminating risk.

I don’t relate this story to mock this very sincere, earnest, hard-working person.  But he seems like just the kind of truly convinced, self-assured, successful man who might show up in Willy Loman’s world – he seems just the kind of person whom Willy might ask, in moments of honest anguish, “What is the secret?  Please impart to me your wisdom; please give me whatever it is you have.  I don’t know what I’m doing.”

How we’ve allowed ourselves, like Willy Loman, to idolize those who appear successful!  How we’ve allowed ourselves to be impressed with, captivated by, people who act self-assured, who appear to know the secret, the trick.  And we as a society have tried so hard to fake it, hoping that our consumption, our big cars, our big houses, our good appearance, somehow bring us closer to true success.

But the false does not ever lead us closer to the true; it always leads us farther and farther away, no matter how much our falsehoods mimic the truth.

We had a financial system that a lot of very impressive people insisted was real prosperity.  But it has shown itself to be false, and, tragically, we are all paying the price.

What is true success?  What is true prosperity?  Are we now ready to let go of the fantasy of the magic answer, the risk-less risks, and look for what is solid and reliable?

A number of years ago, I had my own little financial meltdown.  I got myself in trouble with credit card debt – a real and present danger for all Americans – credit card companies manage to rope in dumb young college grads like I was, and to charge 22% interest rates and although I take responsibility for getting myself in a jam, that doesn’t excuse the companies which prey on dumb young people like I was.  But I let myself get lured into buying what I felt I needed for my apartment, now that I was out on my own, and it wasn’t long before I was in over my head.  In my desperation, I picked up a book at Barnes and Noble called How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, and Live Prosperously by Jerrold Mundis.  It’s a book based on the principles of Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step program for those who debt.  Because of the book, I found meetings of Debtors Anonymous – DA – and mended my relationship with credit cards.  That is, I cut them up all up.  I wish the whole country could have found DA with me, because America has been drunk on debt the way an alcoholic gets drunk on money.

Almost two years ago, there was an article in the New York Times which opened with the words, “Whatever else might be on the minds of Americans, it certainly doesn’t seem to be a rainy day. Not since the Great Depression have Americans been saving money at such a low rate…. The rate, in fact, is a negative number for the second year in a row, according to the Commerce Department, suggesting that consumers have been taking away from their nest eggs, rather than contributing to them.”  The article said that the only years prior to 2005 in which savings rates had been negative were 1932 and 1933 – during the Great Depression.

A reader on the New York Times website at the time gave this prescient response:
“The only risk you should take is acknowledging that your nest egg may lose as much as half or more of its value when [the Depression] happens again because [such behavior as lack of saving and over-consumption] caused the Great Depression. Each day is a judgment call whether you should buy those material things….  So with an eye toward your future comfort, shop wisely now while keeping in mind that people who are used to luxuries bought on margin are always the first to feel extremely uncomfortable because their unsustainable life-style will have become greatly decreased. Wars inevitably cause that sort of thing to happen, not only to the victims of the wars but just brilliantly to the perpetrators who have never been capable of thinking ahead.  [— Posted by madupont]”

I am reminded of the advice of Mr. Micawber in Charles’ Dickens great novel, David Copperfield.  Mr. Micawber was a good hearted man, but one who never managed to do well, and even landed in debtors’ prison.  Upon his release from prison, David visited him, where Mr. Micawber gave the young man two pieces of advice.  The first was: “Never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him!”

“My other piece of advice, Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber, “you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six[pence], result: happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result: misery.”

What I learned in Debtors Anonymous, when I was personally facing what we as a nation are facing now, was that the way out of debt is to stop debting.  It sounds simple and obvious enough, but when we are addicted to a behavior, the idea of stopping that behavior sounds incredible.  Now, I’m no macroeconomist – in fact, I’m no economist at all, though I’ve always had a keen interest in the subject.  I understand there are good arguments for the government going heavily into debt during a time like this.  But what we as a nation through our government do, and what we do at home aren’t necessarily governed by the same principles.  Our national debt as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product was much higher in the 1940’s than it is today – in fact, our debt was well above 100% of GDP in the 40’s , and some would say that we would be wise to allow that to happen again in order to stimulate the economy.  But what I learned about my personal situation was that no matter how much I believed that I “had to” go into more debt because I was in such a desperate situation, it was simply untrue.  It was time to begin living within my means.  At the time, I was living in Westchester county and working in Manhattan.  I did not own a car.  I would get home late at night into the White Plains train station, and because the buses were not timed with the trains, if I took the bus home from the train station, I had to sit and wait an hour in the cold, and then, of course, the bus went all over creation before it dropped me off.  It seemed obvious to me that I “had” to take a taxi home.  The taxi was about ten dollars as compared to one dollar for the bus, and it saved me between an hour and an hour and a half.  That seemed such a reasonable calculation; however, because I had very little disposable income to spend, the plain truth that I learned to face in DA, was that I could not afford the taxi.  The taxi home was fifty dollars a week; the bus home was five dollars a week.  I remember the moment it sunk in, that just because I really, really really really wanted to take the taxi, that didn’t mean that I needed to take the taxi.  I learned to take a book with me and to pull it out for the hour or more between my arrival on the train and my arrival at home.  And over time, doing the right thing began to feel really good, I began to take great pride in living within my means; And, I began to be capable of saving for things of real value that I wanted, which were worth all those hours spent at the cold bus stop, reading my books.  I found that I could save up for something, and then pay for it, and not have that sinking feeling of having my enjoyment ruined by the knowledge that the thing I was enjoying was putting me in debt.  I learned that it sometimes takes real courage to be cheap.  It takes courage to face the truth of difficult situations.  It takes courage to distinguish between our wants and our needs.  It takes courage to live prudently in a society that is organized around getting you to believe that you must buy this now.

What is so sad about the story of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman is that he always believed there was a formula to success – but what he never understood was that the formula to success was that he stop trying to emulate it.  He never understood that he could enjoy nothing until he began to be honest.  Finally, Willy’s son, Biff, is finally tired of all the lies, and finally, someone in the family states the awful truth.  The truth is that Willy has been a mediocre salesman and unfaithful to his wife.  The truth is that Biff flunked out of high school, is a compulsive thief, has spent time in jail and has never held a job of any prestige.  The only thing Biff has done well is to be a farm hand, which he loves, but which was never satisfactory because it didn’t match the family’s fantasy of what a Loman was.  Biff finally says to his father, “All right, phony.  Let’s lay it on the line….  You’re going to hear the truth: what you are and what I am.  We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house….  I was in jail….  I stole myself out of every good job since high school….  Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be?  What am I doing in an office, making a contemptuous, begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.”

But Willy cannot let the truth in, though Biff begs him to burn the phony dream.

Truthtelling is the heart of gratitude.

For all that is our life, the song says, we give our thanks and praise.
And so, as we enter into this Thanksgiving, may we have the courage to be grateful for what sometimes seems so little – so much less than our picture of the ideal life which flashes before our eyes like an internal commercial.

If Willy could only have seen what he had, what gratitude he could have felt.  His sons, though very imperfect, remained connected with him.  Their presence indicated their love, though their words were often harsh.  They were trying.  His wife was loving, selfless, loyal.  And though he’d made only a modest living, on the very da of his funeral, the mortgage was paid off.

His wife wept at his grave, “Oh Willy, but we’re free.”  We’re free.  But do we know it?  Do we allow ourselves to know it?  We’re free.

Savings Rate at Depression-Era Lows … Does it Matter? February 1, 2007 By TOM ZELLER JR.