Christian Long

Matt Weinstein: What Bernie Madoff Couldn’t Steal from Me

In TED Talks on May 10, 2010 at 11:26 pm

Reflection by KYLE M.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Matt Weinstein: What Bernie Madoff Couldn’t Steal from Me

While I suspect even Matt himself would concede that his presentation is a decidedly simple one, the aftermath of my watching it was comprised of a surprisingly complex mix of emotions.

Even after spending several hours processing and reevaluating the speech, I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. Considering the limited amount of content in the video, this is a peculiar predicament: ultimately, it only seeks to convey a straightforward and uplifting message, and I do admire it on that merit; in fact, I agree wholeheartedly with the fundamental message being presented. Nevertheless, much of what Matt claims is vague to an irresponsible degree, and could all too easily bestow his audience with a dangerously erroneous impression.

Therefore, though I am obligated to grant Matt his due credit, I cannot help but offer some healthy challenges to his questionable assertions.

Fortunately, though I harbor my aforementioned ethical qualms, I have no issues with the manner in which Matt has structured his talk. He begins with the tried-and-true technique of drawing the audience in with a heartfelt anecdote, and one would indeed need to be particularly callous to not relate and empathize with the plight he describes: during an initially lackadaisical vacation in Antarctica, Matt was introduced to the bombshell that the entirety of his life savings had been utterly depleted, courtesy of the deservedly reviled scoundrel Bernie Madoff.

Understandably, this revelation utterly devastated Matt for a considerable period of time, but he was eventually greeted with the epiphany that he still held what was truly important to him within his grasp.

Therein resides the core thesis to Matt’s entire presentation: that which should truly matter to human beings transcends the realm of the monetary, and one must always be aware that wealth is much more fleeting than the genuine treasures of life: friends, family, and the beauty of nature.

On its own, that is not only a sound philosophical position (and a bit too obvious for a mention on TED, methinks), but one that I’d reveal myself to be immoral and vain by not agreeing with. I would concur that the axiom about how one’s pocketbook cannot purchase happiness is so oft-repeated precisely because it’s, pardon the pun, right on the money.

Yet despite the overall congruence of our thoughts, the finer elements that Matt uses to bolster this point strike me as dubious enough to warrant a contrarian response. For example, he uses several quotes by Epictetus to illustrate the idea that though one may not be in control of the circumstances surrounding him or her, but one’s perspective on these events is entirely up to the individual. I’m afraid that this is an ignorant perspective, and is all too easy to make when someone has, on the whole, had as good a life as Matt has had. Unfortunately, many people have not enjoyed the same luxuries, and their cynical perspectives are not necessarily something they can bend on a whim. Yes, it is indeed possible for the poorest man in the world to be happier than the most affluent, but Matt paints a much broader brushstroke with his claim than that: let one imagine a mother losing her only child. Is it a choice that she should grieve, or merely an instinctual reaction?

The point is that not all tragedy can be weighed equally, and it is thus incorrect for Matt to try and compare his comparatively mild downfall with the suffering of the rest of the planet. It is possible to recover from the wounds inflicted upon him and most people, and if he had simply stated that money is not what’s most important, I’d have no problems with his speech (other than it being rather banal in the end). But he continuously downplays the fact that money IS important. It’s what allows us to maintain the privilege to enjoy what matters in life. A man who has lost every penny and feels depressed is not acting on a lack of adequate perspective; it’s a basic human reaction, and one that Matt could not possibly have experienced when he lost only so little.

One might claim I am reading Matt’s comments too literally, but these claims promote the global apathy towards true suffering in their own way. I hope that Matt did not intend to suggest that those who have truly seen the dark side of life should “just cheer up a bit,” and if his message is simply that money can’t buy happiness, we are on the identical page. But every word we make public has some impact, and Matt’s are carelessly dismissive of those who’ve REALLY lost something.

I would love to see Matt clarify his claims in some form or another, as he appears to be a well-intentioned human being. Until then, I’m afraid his message is, ultimately, counter-productive.

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