The Ugliest Words in the English Language

I think the ugliest words in the English language are these:

"Sometimes you just have to have a little faith."

Offhand, I can’t think of a single sentence that has wreaked more havoc than this one and its many variations.

Having a little faith means, almost literally, that you have abandoned your common sense and put yourself in the hands of someone else who is asking you to believe in something you can’t see, and to do so just because they said so.

They’ve got you thinking that you’re a cold and unfeeling human being if you refuse to let go and trust something else based not on any compelling reason, but because of ‘faith.’ They would have you believe that not everything can be analyzed (they’re right on that one), not everything you do has to be calculated and sensible (they’re right about that, too), and therefore, once in a while you just have to have a little faith.

It’s the therefore I’m having trouble with. And here’s why: How are you supposed to know what you’re just supposed to have a little faith in? If you’re a religious person, you’re supposed to be aware of false prophets. How are you going to do that if you believe that, once in a while, you ought to just have a little faith?

This is how people lose billions in scams. Somebody calls you out of the blue and asks you to invest money in Florida real estate. Sounds interesting, so you start asking some good questions. They might even begin by answering them. You ask more questions.

At some point in the conversation, the person on the phone says, "You know, sometimes you just have to have a little faith."

Now, maybe you start to feel bad about pestering this person with all those questions (although, from my limited perspective, twenty minutes of questions prior to plunking down a large portion of your life’s savings is not unreasonable). Maybe he’s sighing with exasperation, implying that none of his other investors felt compelled to go into this kind of detail. They were all trusting human beings, they all had faith – so what’s the matter with you, guy?

In short, this person is making you feel guilty for being a rational human being.

Worse, he’s telling you that there is something wrong with you.

Trust me here (have a little faith): This is not a person whose approval you should be concerned about seeking.

When somebody tells you to just have a little faith, it usually means they’ve run out of good reasons and can no longer explain themselves.

"Have a little faith" is not the same as "Trust me." There is nothing wrong with trusting people you have come to trust. It often pays great dividends.

An example: I detest administration. I am bored to tears by personal financial management, and my eyes glaze over when people start waxing poetic about their antics in the stock market (see that section). Yet I know that I have to manage my pennies somehow, in order to make sure I don’t wake up broke one morning and have to go get a real job.

A few years ago, I met a guy named David on a golf course in Hawaii, where my wife was participating in the Ironman. It turned out that his wife was doing the same thing. We got along and golfed together for a few days, and talked a great deal about a variety of subjects. After we got back home, we continued to see each other and became good friends. I was never quite sure what he did for a living, because it was in the area of finance, insurance and the like, and I am abysmally ignorant of such matters. But I knew he was very smart. Over time, I also came to know that he had enormous integrity.

Then something unpleasant came up in our lives. It started with losing all the money we had invested in our (California, what else?) house. We were in real trouble and needed some financial advice, so at my lawyer’s urging, I engaged a huge and prestigious firm in New York to help us out. I wasn’t sure of the right questions to ask, so I ran it by David. He guided me through the process, making sure we were getting everything we needed. He even came up with ideas that the big guys in New York had never thought of.

At one point I said, "Hey, how come you know more about this stuff than the people I’m using?" And he said, "It’s what I do for a living, dummy."

So we hired him instead. With David in the picture, we no longer have to give much thought to how our money is being handled (my wife hates doing that even worse than I do), except when he tells us that we have to, or makes us look at reports.

I suppose you could call that faith. But it’s not just faith, not because someone said so. It’s faith built on a solid underpinning of analysis and judgment. I did thorough checks on all the financial products and companies that David recommended, and they always came up just as he had described.

Now it’s possible that, one day, David may take all of our dough and skip the country. But whatever money we lost would pale in comparison to the profound disappointment we would feel at having been so wrong in our judgment of character.

I don’t think it’s going to happen.

That’s real faith, baby.

Incidentally, David’s the one who nagged at me to write this book.

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