There are moments in our lives which force us to pause and evaluate life in general. There was one such ‘moment’ which occurred this past summer that temporarily affected my focus. In fact, this event made me feel like I was viewing the situation through a camera lens-seeing the situation from a macro perspective, then panning out to zoom, and finally adjusting to find a field of view somewhere in between. Because this event personally affected me, I was compelled to put my thoughts to paper. This exercise was cathartic for me, and hopefully, beneficial for others. I mean to offend no one, especially those who were involved in some way. Below are my thoughts as I expressed them in a memo-to-self during the circumstances I am about to describe.
The contrast of today versus yesterday is stark. Today, I am sitting at a picnic table in a park at 7 am in the morning (writing these thoughts) while yesterday evening I was sitting in a pew in a church. Today, as the sun rises and the birds are singing, all I can think about was last night and experiences over the course of many years. You see, a long-time friend of mine died and it was his memorial service that my family and I attended. My friend committed suicide four nights ago. He was sixty-four.
Out of respect for the family’s privacy, I choose to call this individual, Clyde (not even close to his real name). Clyde was an enigma. To those who knew him personally and professionally, he was one thing, and to himself, he was another. To the folks who knew Clyde well enough, he was certainly a unique individual who made you think he was a sincere and honest man. Clyde was one of those special people who made an impact wherever he went. He was ‘colorful’ to say the least.
Where to start is not entirely clear to me, so I will first talk about his positive qualities. I will skip his manifold achievements because they don’t really make the man…they only clothe him so-to-speak. Believe me, though, when I say that Clyde had many admirable accomplishments, and the awards to prove it. He was a leader, a motivator, a humorist, an entertainer and a teacher. It appeared he was a good husband and father, but only his family knows if that is true.
My friend was a generous soul who assisted many throughout his lifetime. He gave of his financial resources, of his time and of his talents. He had a soft spot for the less fortunate and was constantly involved in charitable work. Deep down inside, I believe Clyde had a servant’s heart.
On the other hand, Clyde had several not-so-endearing qualities. He was controlling and a micro-manager. He was openly opinionated. He was a self-promoter (par excellence) and just about everything he did publicly (and often privately) seemed calculated and self-serving. To most, this may be a revelation, but when you spend enough time around someone, certain patterns become clear. Clyde didn’t lack self-esteem. In a way, he reminded me of a cross between Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Occasionally, he could appear to be quite humble. I liked him best during these moments.
I loved Clyde. I didn’t always like him, though. He would have understood and accepted this statement.
In spite of his sometimes questionable motives, I believe Clyde loved others, including God. This is where the enigma surfaces. I’ll do my best to explain that Clyde was a walking, breathing, talking contradiction of a human being. All that I share is my opinion based on knowing him for twenty years. We served on church leadership teams, co-sponsored many youth activities (including two mission trips), and were personal friends. I believe I knew Clyde pretty well. There are a lot of memories; most of them pleasant.
“Why did you do it, Clyde?” That is the question so many are asking in the wake of his suicide. The circumstances that lead to this action are important, but not as critical as the deeply embedded reasons behind it. However, some background is necessary to understand the dilemma Clyde faced. I hold to the conviction that anyone who commits this horrible act is not thinking straight, no matter how calm and organized they may be prior to or at the time of self-infliction. Also, suicide is a very selfish act because the amount of collateral damage to others is not clearly considered as the decision is made to end one’s life. The consequences for those left behind can be extreme and last indefinitely.
Clyde got himself into a real jam by sacrificing his ethics to save his image and maintain his standard of living. He compromised one of his supposed core values of honesty for ill-gotten gain, and got caught. Four years ago Clyde was convicted of financial fraud. His business license was pulled and he was placed on probation by the state. Few were aware of this crime, or the fact that he had some earlier unethical business dealings which he was reprimanded for, but not convicted. As a result of having his business license cancelled, this set off a chain reaction to compensate for lost income by cheating others, and stealing their monies. Four years ago, Clyde could have chosen to change course and make honest and necessary changes. He was a smart and innovative individual, and could have survived the economic downturn. This would not have been easy nor was it a pleasant prospect to start over at a later age in life, but it was doable. I have specifically been vague as to the nature of Clyde’s business in an effort to conceal his identity with the purpose of limiting his family from public ridicule and further scrutiny.
In order to preserve his lifestyle (albeit at a lesser income) and to maintain the image he had spent a lifetime crafting, Clyde defrauded people-especially the elderly and his friends-in order to keep the money flowing. His crime was a type of Ponzi scheme wherein folks were promised large returns on supposed investments. Lies were told and people defrauded. Trust was used as a tool to manipulate. The problem with Ponzi schemes is there is no end to the masquerade. For every dollar illegally taken, another dollar would be owed to an anxious investor. So, another unsuspecting client would be sold on the ‘investment’ in order to secure the cash to pay his investors a return on their ‘investment’, and to line his pockets.
The law was closing in, and a warrant for his arrest imminent. The amount of stolen money was not Madoff-like, but exceeded a million dollars. Knowing Clyde well enough, I am confident that he could not bear the thought of public humiliation. Pride is a powerful motivator, and engrained itself deep within Clyde’s soul. I believe Clyde considered the impact his suicide would have on his family. He loved them. However, the weight of his punishment and height of his hypocrisy was too much for him to bear. His perspective was obscured. He chose poorly. Some say those who commit suicide take the ‘easy’ way out. In some respects that is true. It is also permanent (at least in this life). The remaining loved ones who have to face each day without their beloved, and with the knowledge, obligations and legacy of what he did, become as much a victim as those who were robbed. It seems as though all the good Clyde did throughout his life was erased over the course of the last decade, and particularly the day he took his life.
Because Clyde stole money from friends, and especially from the most vulnerable-the elderly shows his level of selfishness and desperation. His actions beg an answer to this question, “If he swindled some recently, how long has he been doing this sort of thing?” Unfortunately, I question his ethics with regard to every charity he started and ran, and every cause he helped. I don’t want to go there, but am compelled to question his motives for just about everything he did. How tragic.
My heart goes out to Clyde’s family and closest friends. Only by God’s inexhaustible grace will they be able to successfully navigate beyond these troubled waters. I am sorrowful for all of the victims, and hope they will be able to recover all (or at least a portion of) their ‘investments’. If they don’t, I hope financial hardship won’t be their path. Also, I hope forgiveness takes root. And, to the disillusioned, I hope they won’t see all business people who work in the financial realm as frauds and charlatans.
There is the potential within each one of us to be a Clyde. If we fail to look in the mirror and honestly assess our motives and actions, then we can fall into the trap of rationalizing lies for truth. If we don’t become accountable to others, we can succumb to duplicity, like Clyde did. If we fail to be transparent and authentic, then our lives can be lived-out as a sham. Pride, prestige, conceit, arrogance, greed, etc. are all anathema in God’s economy. He commands us to be pure in heart, honest, compassionate, authentic, noble, and so much more than we can ever become on our own. This is why we need Him actively working in our lives to transform us (daily) into His image.
If you don’t adhere to this spiritual viewpoint, at least adhere to something that promotes higher virtues than your own self-centeredness. Otherwise, you may be transformed into Wall Street’s or Hollywood’s image of success at any cost, and duped into thinking you can do, and handle, anything of your chosing. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The reality is, we are weak. We need a source of power that is greater than ourselves One who is benevolent, kind, forgiving, and compassionate, but also just and righteous. I look to Christ for such a power. When the siren song of the world beckons, I can always trust in Him to firmly hold me. I may drift off course or become shipwrecked, but He will never let me drown…fail, yes, but not drown.
We rob ourselves if we settle for less than a life of integrity. We rob others, too. There are two roads we can travel through life. The way of the weak is heavily traveled, alluring, and is deceitfully easy to follow. The moral high ground is the way less traveled and requires more effort. Often, those who traverse this road are like salmon swimming upstream. The journey may be very difficult at times, but the end result produces something wonderful. It creates refreshing and honest lives. I would much rather hear, “Well done”, even if I were a bit beat-up, instead of, “Why did you compromise so much for so little?”