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The flip side of `Black Monday'

WHY is it that a financial disaster of the clearest proportions seems to have left so much cheerfulness in its wake? Since Oct. 19, when many of my friends were fully invested and the whole fabric of that investment turned to rags, people have been walking around as though clothed anew. Where I looked for solemnity, I detect something close to gaiety. Events have not touched them deeply.

One might suspect that these sprightly people had anticipated events, yet they are not financially savvy like Donald Trump or John Templeton, but just run-of-the-mill investors who have been ground down pretty small. Each of them has lost thousands of dollars. For each of them their children's education becomes a real problem. Yet they are not downhearted at all. I have been looking for an explanation of this spirited response.

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I like to think some of them may have taken heart from American philosophy, seeing another chance to test the spirit of self-reliance. They remember Ralph Waldo Emerson saying, ``When half-gods go, the Gods arrive,'' and they recall that Henry David Thoreau devoted the longest chapter in ``Walden'' to a peculiar kind of ``economy,'' where wealth was defined as the number of things one could do without. Maybe they agree with Thoreau in thinking that man's mind and his capacity for appreciation are his real assets, and so they can begin a fresh life. Their walk becomes lighter down any street. Their coats lift in the breeze. They have a few moves left.

Or perhaps these plucky friends had been forewarned by American poets. They may remember that Edwin Arlington Robinson, chronicler of such investment aces as Bewick Finzer (``Something crumbled in his brain when his half-million went''), and Aaron Stark (with ``eyes like silver dollars in the dark''), and Richard Cory (who ``glittered when he walked''), left it to others to answer Cassandra: ``Are you to pay for what you have/ With all you are?''

Or maybe it was just the drowsy October lines of Robert Frost: ``For I have had too much/ of apple-picking: I am over tired/ Of the great harvest I myself desired.'' Since, like the fallen star of Hollywood, Abishag, they could not ``make the whole stock exchange their own,'' maybe they have settled back on the alternatives: ``Some have relied on what they knew;/ Others on being simply true./ What worked for them might work for you.''

Or is this slight caroling I detect among my friends a reflective response to very old questions, unbounded by space or time and as international in scope as the crash itself? In the 4th century, Augustine tells of two men serving an unpredictable emperor whose fortunes were as brittle as their own, and deliberating: ``What would we attain by all these labours of ours? What is it we aim at? Is it worthwhile trying to be friends of the emperor when we can become friends with God at once?'' And in the 14th century a similar question is asked by Chaucer's King Theseus: ``What is this world? What asketh men to have? Now with his love, now in the cold grave. Alone, without any company.''

So I have been wondering whether people have taken temporary refuge from the times among poets and philosophers, whose words are supposed to bring rest to the weary.

But no, I do not think that has been the case. The explanation is far more simple. My friends are happy precisely because they are not sad. They feared the coming of this time, and now they have made a great discovery. Although they have lost a third of their ``treasure,'' they have not lost a third of their hearts. In fact, they realize what they lost was not their treasure at all. These holdings in the market were never quite a part of them, and they are glad to find that their hearts are not where they thought they might have been.

It is this illumination which ``Black Monday'' made possible. When the lights went out on Wall Street, they came on in the streets of another city. And in that city, eased from their stocks, people can go around much as they always did, but knowing a little better their direction.

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Like the first Pilgrims, we have been sojourners in a strange land and have not brought the harvest in, and yet the immaterial current of our lives remains. We still have the company of our families, there still gleams that untraveled road Ulysses spoke of, and life takes on a little of the quality of an M.C. Escher drawing. There is at first a pattern of dull-eyed fishes - and then we see the doves. In a life of hope and not of reckoning, we can be thankful for those things not easy to add up.

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