The Catholic mystic Thomas Keating loves to tell the story of the Sufi master who had lost the key to his house.
"He was looking in the grass outside the house. He got down on his hands and knees, and started running his fingers through every blade of grass. Along came eight or 10 of his disciples. They said, 'Master, what is wrong?'
"He said, 'I have lost the key to my house.'
"They said, 'Can we help you find it?'
"He said 'I'd be delighted.'
"So they all got down on their hands and knees and started running their fingers through the grass. As the sun grew hotter, one of the more intellectual of the disciples said 'Master, have you any idea where you might have lost the key?'
"'Of course' he replied. 'I lost it in the house.'
"To which they all exclaimed, 'Then why are we looking for it out here?!?!'
" 'Isn't it obvious?' he said. 'There is more light here.' "
I cherish that story, because it illuminates so much of human behavior. We tend to look for answers where the light seems brightest, not necessarily where the answer can be found.
I have spent much of my life arguing that rather than focusing so much on finding the right answer -- a very Western obsession -- we should focus more, and first, on finding the right
. Good answers to wrong questions are useless; Worse, they distract and mislead us, often moving us farther from the real answer, the knowledge we seek, than we were when we began.
I thought about that "right question" issue, and about the Sufi master's teaching of his followers, throughout this long, dark weekend, amid the rubble of the past two weeks.
All around me people are asking what I'm convinced are the wrong questions -- principally,
When will it be over? IS it over?
Those are traders' questions, not investors' questions. They seek the quick palliative, the take-two-vicodin-and-call-me-in-the-morning answer to a problem with deeper roots, and deeper meaning, than their "and so what do I do now?" logical conclusion.
Actually, of course, there's nothing wrong with those questions, and when the sky is falling, they're inevitable. They're also a natural part of being a trader, which is certainly not an ignoble profession.
But they're not enough.
Like you, probably, I've lost a bundle over the past fortnight; And like you, probably, I'm looking for that moment when I can get back in, put my reserve capital back to work, start digging out of those losses and working toward a lot better year than it looks right now that I'll have.
But they are not satisfying questions, and they do not have satisfying answers. Worse, we -- at least, I -- learn nothing from them.
I expect to see another crash like this -- I can't call it a "correction" with a straight face -- or two or three during my life, and I'd like to think, present evidence notwithstanding, that I'm smart enough to learn something from the past two weeks that will be useful then. I can't stop the next crash, or the one after that; but I can game them better, I believe, if I now ask not only the short-term
"Is it over?"
survivalist questions, but also the
"Why did it happen?"
"How should I have acted?"
Standing hip-deep here in this swamp beside me, the margin-clerk alligators still nipping at our butts, you may say there will be plenty of time for that later. After all, I've written here and said on "TheStreet.com" on the
Fox News Channel
last weekend that I think the
comp will be over 4800 by Christmas, though most of that movement won't begin 'til after Labor Day. So if I'm right, and things are coming back within the year, why worry about the future stuff, the philosophical stuff, now?
Bail the boat now, damnit;
Yes, but . . .
we always say that.
we never get around to it.
our post-mortem analysis never benefits from the acute insight of the visceral, the blood and pain and fresh memories of the moment,
In other words, it's a lot more convenient to look outside in the grass, where the light is so much better, than here in the house, where it's dark and still scary.
Later today I'll run through the steps that I think led, if with not quite perfect coordination or inevitability, to this debacle. Yes, this is a kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking. No, that won't change the score.
But there's a reason coaches look at game films on Monday mornings. Roll the projector.
Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Seymour does not write about companies that are current or recent consulting clients of Seymour Group. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback at