At the end of the movie – Saving Private Ryan – Ryan, as an old man speaks these words to his wife who walks up to his side:
“Tell me I’ve have led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.”
I must say that, although I’ve seen that movie many times, I am always brought to tears. I am touched knowing that others come into our lives for a reason and, through their efforts, we find that our lives are shaped. In Ryan’s case, his concern was living up to the sacrifice made for him and on his behalf. Ryan wanted to know if the life he lived and the legacy he left was worth the price.
As the movie ended, I could not help but feel sadness for the tragedy that came to light some four months ago when Bernie Madoff admitted that his work wa nothing but a ponzi scheme. As those words were spoken – lives were changed and, at least for now, not for the better. The reality of lost investments came to light, financial futures were changed and Madoff’s legacy was forever etched in history.
THE HUMAN TRAGEDY:
From the standpoint of those who were victimized the loss is great. But the tragedy goes much deeper than lost money. I do not wish to minimize the loss of treasure, but it is – afterall – just money. Money can be made and often is lost. The question is how do we react to that loss?
I heard one of Madoff’s victims on a radio clip Thursday the day Madoff was sentenced. She said, “My life is over…” I cringed when I heard her comments. I, too, (admittedly for different reasons) lost everything material. I know the feeling of loss and despair, but LIFE IS NOT OVER. In fact, while life will most certainly change, she still has her freedom and the ability to make choices to improve her life.
One part of the human tragedy is the natural feeling of anger that lost trust naturally brings. That anger and the negative emotion that is a part of what we hear about Madoff does little to promote joy and healing. Perhaps over time that will come.
There is grief over loss. In this case the loss is not only the obvious – the investments that didn’t exist, but the grief over loss is the trust that forever is gone. Many people have come to learn the pain of betrayed trust, and that is hard to heal from. As I have talked with victims from other similar scams, many have said that they have a hard time trusting anyone.
Beyond the victims, I have to say that I feel for Madoff. I do not condone his actions – they are abhorent. But, I feel for the man. Imagine for a moment the feeling inside as Madoff once again crawls into his prison bed. As a child, as a teen as a young man, never would he have imagined that the end of his life would be spent in prison. In his early years he was able to use his intellect to benefit others and himself. Madoff is not dumb and certainly has a vast compentency. Unfortunately, he elected to miguide his brilliance.
Again, at the risk of offending his victims, I do not express my feelings for Madoff in support of his actions. He has earned every night he spends in prison. The empathetic feelings I have are for him as a human being. How tragic that his actions have not only hurt those whom he was entrusted with investments, but his actions have harmed his family and others closely connected to him.
As a human being, it is difficult to find your life relegated to the structure and environment of prison. Here’s a man who has a brilliant mind, who now will wake at 6ish each day, eat prison food at designated times and eat only what is offered. He will eventually be assigned a location which will likely be a medium to minimum security facility. It is NOT “Club Fed” – the days are filled with counts, structure and work. You quickly lose the feeling for the outside world as contact is kept to a minimum and while you may read the newspaper, you find that reading or TV is no replacement for contact that free people have with each other.
As time goes on as he languishes away in prison, those close to him will die – but, he’ll find himself disconnected. He will have gone from high flying financier to just another inmate. He will withdraw for his own protection finding that the culture in federal prison is something foreign to him. He will hear and learn things that will repulse him and there will be those who will leach on to him hoping to make him their prey. Perhaps, they might think, “If I can threaten or endanger him, I might get some money for my family on the outside.” He may become a target or he may just fade into oblivion.
For a time, he will continue to have notoriety as the federal government seeks to unravel the true scope of his actions. Did his wife and/or children know? Were they involved? Was his accounting firm in the know or where they just incompetent? How was he able to maintain the grandeur of his illusion for so long? These questions and many more will arise – but all the while, the human tragedy is that someone – Bernie Madoff – through his choices is ending his life sitting in a prison cell.
Beyond Madoff – for a moment – imagine being one of his children, grandchildren or greatgrandchildren – the name Madoff is tainted. He will be remembered for his crime – for the effect he had on the lives of thousands who trusted him – for his last days spent in prison. If you were a grandchild – think of what happens when you enter college and for the first time the teach calls the role. When they get to your name and say “Madoff” – think of the looks you’ll get when folks quickly begin to wonder – “is he connected to that guy”? Their lives have been changed forever as well – and not by their doing.
Charles Ponzi created this scheme. The name “Ponzi” is forever associated with something negative – just like the name Hitler. As we live our lives today, the same is true with “Madoff” – his name has been etched in history never to be associated with positive thougths.
As a business ethics and fraud prevention speaker, I know what it must be like for Madoff – this his first weekend in prison. While I wish I could say otherwise, I know because I’ve been there. I earned my time there. It was no fun, but punishment is a consequence of choices. My choices led me to prison, and Madoff’s have led him there as well.
Perhaps, when the dust settles, we can all take a moment and, like Private Ryan from the movie, ask “have I led a good life?” I pray when my life ends that I’ll be able to look back and see a life well lived. I wonder though for Madoff if it is possible for people to find compassion while at the same time accepting that his life is prison is a clear consequence for the choices he made?
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