Friday, May 14, 2010

Because I’m a Contrarian

My wife can tell you that I am wired differently than most people. I tend to go against the crowd. Webster wrote a post a while back called Because I am Usually Howling with the Mob. Not me. I tend to avoid mobs, crowds, and popular opinion.

I worked for Merrill Lynch briefly out of college. I did so because I confused "investing" with "selling investments for a living." Successful investors often avoid crowds too. They are called "contrarians." Successful purveyors of investment products, on the other hand, are usually about being popular, well liked people. Many (not all) of them are bogged down in that quagmire of alliances that Webster speaks about in his latest post (fear, lies, and power anyone?).

In case I've lost you, here is the definition of contrarian as found on Wikipedia,

A contrarian is a person with a preference for taking a position opposed to that of the majority view prevalent in the group of which they are a part.

Uh-huh, a weird bird then. The sworn enemy of group-think. In the investing world, a contrarian makes decisions based on objective values. The crowd makes decisions based on subjective ones. The great contrarian investors, like Warren Buffet, John Neff, and John Templeton are (were) successful because they were doing something different than the mob. They looked for bargains and usually found them among the unloved and unknown assets when everyone else was chasing the latest fad. Or they bought good assets cheap when everyone else was selling them for pennies in fear.

Jeremy Grantham, a modern contrarian investor of some renown, expounds often on the career risk that true contrarians face in the investment world. It takes courage to be "contrary" to the conventional wisdom of the day. Sometimes being right isn't enough to save your job. You might be right, but at the wrong time to make your client happy. Result? You are fired. In terms of the eternal, however, being a contrarian will save your soul, if not your paycheck.

As a contrarian, I like to buy what other people shun or sell what others clamor for. I like to go on vacation when others are working. I like to eat at restaurants at "off" times. My family and I left California in the summer of 2005 when "everyone" knew that California real estate had nowhere to go in value but up. That it wound up going nowhere but down (ahem, and a lot) surprised a lot of people, my wife included. Not me (ask her). I had done too much reading, too much research into the matter to be surprised by Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. That is the title of a book that Charles Mackay wrote and published in 1853. Here is a little tidbit from the preface of that book:

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first...Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

In his  gospel,  St. Matthew (9:38) writes of Our Lord that "At the sight of the crowds, His heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd." Remember conventional wisdom at the trial of Jesus? "Give us Bar-Abbas!" was their cry.

The key phrase for me in the Mackay quote is, "They only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." Which brings me to Catholicism and being a contrarian. Pope Benedict XVI warned us recently to be prepared for martyrdom. Does this idea scare you? It is definitely a contrarian idea. You know, you can easily undergo a form of psychological martydom today. Right now. Heck, right this minute. Just tell everyone you know that you are a happy Catholic Christian. Just saying that alone may be enough to turn you into a pariah in some parts of the country or among some of your Facebook friends the world over.

If you really want to do the job right though, tell everyone you know that not only are you a Catholic but also you believe absolutely all of the teachings of the Church. Every, single last one of them. The teaching on capital punishment, abortion, contraception, just war, the Real Presence, divorce, marriage, the Assumption of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, etc. Say, "If it's in the Catechism, then I believe it." See what happens.

Will you be run out of town on a rail after proclaiming you are a happy Catholic? Will lynch mobs come for you? Maybe not physically, but mentally? You might already be a martyr. It is a hard enough road being a Catholic Christian, actually trying to live the faith day in and day out under "normal" circumstances. But just in case you thought it was going to be easy street, the entire Church is now being sifted with a scandal that makes Watergate and Iran-Contra seem innocent in comparision. Truth? Ninety-six percent of priests haven't abused any children, you say? That fact doesn't sell any newspapers or ad space on the 15 different news channels vying for the time and attention of the crowd. Besides, any percent less than 100 is totally unacceptable to anyone with a brain. Right? So says conventional wisdom.

Which brings me to another contrarian thought, one that I promised almost a month ago. I wrote that I hoped to share some thoughts with you on solitude, silence, and prayer. Look now at those three words. Note how contrary they are to our modern world. Solitude? Nobody wants to be alone, right? Not for long anyway. Just us contrarians. Silence? How long can you leave the radio off in your car during your commute, or the television off in your home? I could go forever without listening or watching either. My kids on the other hand? Hmmmmmm. And finally, prayer. Certainly allowed in your home and at your parish church, but is it allowed anywhere in between anymore? Maybe it is not outlawed (yet), but do you feel comfortable doing it, is the key question.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said, If I were not a Catholic, and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hates.

Spoken like a true contrarian. Guess which Church that is today? You'd have to be living under a rock not to answer "the Roman Catholic Church." Though the scandal rocking our Church has really bothered me lately (how could it not?), I intend to stick with the Church. But  unlike many, I don't want the Church to be reformed. I was called to join the Church and I did so willingly because I believe that everything She stands for and teaches is True. I did the research and everything I came across points to Rome. It still does.

I don't clamor for reform, but cleansing. I don't want the Church to change any of Her doctrines (who am I to question them?), but a house-cleaning of certain (criminal) churchmen is necessary. Surely the moves made so far have not risked throwing babies out with the bath water. Instant gratification is not the name of the game here. A methodical, orderly cleansing is what is starting now. It is slow, it is deliberate, and thankfully it is contrarian. And it will be just.

Here is another contarian saying I really like by one of our favorite authors around here,

So far as a man may be proud of a religion rooted in humility, I am very proud of my religion; I am especially proud of those parts of it that are most commonly called superstition. I am proud of being fettered by antiquated dogmas and enslaved by dead creeds (as my journalistic friends repeat with so much pertinacity), for I know very well that it is the heretical creeds that are dead, and that it is only the reasonable dogma that lives long enough to be called antiquated. —G.K. Chesterton

Our Lord, though, is the ultimate contrarian. As Simeon proclaimed at His Presentation, Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (Luke2:34). In his excellent commentary on the Scriptures, Friedrich Justus Knecht writes about this fact as follows,

In what way has Simeon's prophecy that our Lord should be a "sign of contradiction" been fulfilled? Even when He was an Infant, He was persecuted by Herod, and had to flee. When He began His public life, He met with the greatest opposition, especially from the Pharisees and Sadducees. The inhabitants of Nazareth thrust Him out of their city. The Pharisees slandered Him and said He was in league with the devil; and, on the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple, the Jews wished to stone Him as a blasphemer. He was accused before Pilate of being a seducer of the people etc.; and His enemies never rested till He was nailed upon the Cross.  Even after His Resurrection the opposition to His doctrine and His Church continued. "Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling-block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness, but unto them that are called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (I Cor. i, 23. 24). And this contradiction on the part of the unbelieving will continue till Christ comes again to judge the world.

So there you have it.  I'm a contrarian and a Catholic. If I wasn't, there would be something wrong.