Mr Market, goes the common wisdom, suffers from bipolar disorder. We join him in his enthusiasms—momentarily gratifying our greed and desire as we attempt to amplify wealth; and then our stomachs tighten and grip as his mood swing plummets to strip our dreams. We say the losses are on “paper”; but bitterly remember that the paper was once meaningful— available for redemption and use.

We believe in Mr Market, as we believe in bankers and advisors who guide us and entice us, because, despite our education and the availability of information, it remains exquisitely hard to know what to do to grow our savings and so insure our financial stability. So we declare ourselves adherents of the long term or the short term, the day trade or of buy-and-hold, of value, of growth, of dividend and price-to-earnings. We advocate shareholder rights although we have no idea of the secrets that the balance sheet contains. And now, our harrowing experiences of mark-to-market have been traumatic: a condition which shuts down thinking instead of generating a tolerable loss from which to develop understanding.

So our crisis is larger than the S&P and the Dow: it is a dawning recognition that our lives are balanced on belief, warranted and unwarranted, in systems and the performances of individuals playing roles in systemic drama.

We must save and don’t know what that means, really, as the value of currency erodes and prices increase. We seek counsel to guide and to soothe. And our counselor looks to his colleague to affirm that he’s doing it correctly; and their company looks to the practices of similar organizations to affirm that they are doing it correctly. And because we are focused on our own fragility, we hardly notice that we are, ourselves, playing an input role within a system for processing wealth from broker to firm to industry.

We disconnect our wealth from our anxiety as we plan prudent action. And we disconnect our prudent acts from their uniformity with others’ similarly rational acts as we place our trust in those advisors we believe know more. And we chose not to see the pressures under which our advisors work, to affirm to ourselves that they are better than the rest — which means, that they must participate in a common culture of commerce: but of course, do it much better than others, because we are choosing them and we demand the best. Our first condition is not understanding, but thin belief, based not upon conviction, but upon our own exaggerated illusions of understanding.

Most of us take aspects of the cultures that are lived by us for granted. And under the current shock of economic reality, we are in a place of panic rather than reflection. Yet the underlying dynamics of the situation which took us here— us and not the bankers and brokers— requires consideration. We have relied on shortcuts to knowing about personal finance—as we’ve assured ourselves that the sales assurances of our vendors have been objective. Mostly, though, we have ignored how bound within our economic and commercial systems we have been as our self preservative instincts have sought false security. We have traded careful thought in managing risk in relation to our own needs for the temporary illusion of having made the same wise investment decisions as everyone else.

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