Thursday, November 16, 2006

Essence and Stuff

He is 59 years old and sitting in a medium-security prison making about $1 a day awaiting an appeal of his conviction that levied a sentence of 8 to 25 years. He owes $167 million to the government and various creditors. He has had to sell his $13 million yacht, $10 million mansion, and a $5 million Monet painting to help pay court-ordered fines and restitution for looting the company he led. His wife is divorcing him.

Call him a blessed man.

Dennis Kozlowski wouldn’t necessarily call himself that. I am rendering a perspective from afar about which I do not mean to be cavalier. But the simple fact is that sometimes it takes a spectacular and humbling fall to gain a healthy perspective. And Kozlowski used to be about as far from a healthy perspectie as Yao Ming is from a size 5 shoe. Between 1998 and 2002 he made $300 million as the CEO of Tyco International. He and his Tyco finance chief were convicted of stealing $137 million in unauthorized bonuses from the company and abusing company loan programs. Kozlowski bought a $30 million apartment in New York City and furnished it with $6,000 shower curtains, both of which he (allegedly) charged to the company. And then there is the notorious $2 million fortieth birthday party for his wife and high-level Tyco execs on the Italian island of Sardinia, which featured an ice sculpture of the statue of David dispensing Stolichnaya vodka from a prominent organ, as well as body builders dressed in skin-toned Speedos, models dressed as gladiators, dancing nymphs, ice sculptures, yacht rides and a scavenger hunt.

It was all quite nauseating.

But is any price too big to gain a healthy perspective? He now says about the yacht, mansion and art work he had to sell, “It was just stuff.” Here is a man who worked his way through college and apparently is more of a “working class accountant” than a whiz-bang jet-setter. But he lost his perspective and now he has a chance to get it back.
Few if any of us can relate to such a meteoric rise and spectacular fall. But I do believe there is a lesson here for us “regular” folks. Each of us navigates his way through life juggling what I would call “essence” and “stuff.” The former is the basic, bedrock understanding of who we are and whose we are. It is our identity before God and with our closest family and friends. It is what we can still give thanks for and stand upon even if we have lost everything else. The latter is everything else. “It was just stuff.”

Our accomplishments and possessions and hobbies and travels and luxuries, as satisfying and enjoyable as they are, should not be confused with our essence. And the key is to keep a clear distinction between the two. Who would you be if you “lost everything”? Then that is who you are. The rest is just stuff. And often it takes everything being stripped away (by illness or financial loss or other misfortune) to realize anew (or find out for the first time) who we are. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me,” says the psalmist (139:1). May we give thanks for and stand on that above all else.


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