What do you have?
When you hear that question, do you think about your assets? If so, what are they?
Some of us will think of a car, a house, a boat, investments, electronics and other stuff. Others will think of their health and a wealth of days ahead of them. And still others will treasure their family and friends. In fact, all of us have valued many of these things simultaneously. Sometimes we lie to ourselves about the order of our list, putting at the top what we think we should, but secretly valuing something else.
Calamity creates clarity.
Each of us will have a day that upends that list. It might be the moment you hear, “You have cancer” or “There is nothing more that we can do” or “I’m leaving.” In Glenn Neasham’s case, it was the day he was told, “You are under arrest.”
For Neasham, that clarifying moment was the sound of a gate opening to release a hellish pack of events. Before that moment in 2010, he was a happy insurance agent making more than $400,000 annually in a California lake town, living in a beautiful home with his wife and three children, and planning to build an even better dream home. Today, he is without an insurance license, supporting his family with public assistance, living in a house rented from his in-laws and filing for personal bankruptcy.
Keep in mind that he “won” his case. In the end, he had done nothing illegal, according to an appeals court ruling in October. The justice who wrote the decision was baffled even by the prosecution’s definition of theft. The ruling makes it abundantly apparent that this was a trial that never should have happened.
The sheer absence of a case was what Neasham depended on from the beginning. All he did was sell an 83-year-old woman an annuity that his state said was legal to sell to anyone up to 85 years old, yet he was charged with felony theft. The client turned out to have dementia,
although it was not proven in trial that she was mentally impaired when she bought the annuity. In fact, the prosecutor said she never even proved that Neasham or his assistants ever saw any sign of cognitive impairment in the client. On top of that, the appeals court said that even if Neasham knew, it still would not have been theft because he never got any money directly from the client. The client eventually was refunded the full value of the annuity plus interest.
It turned out that the only theft was of Neasham’s career and earnings.
The day after Neasham learned he won his appeal, he was still dazed. It was the same disorientation seen in someone sitting amid the debris left after a hurricane, not completely certain of what happened and not sure of what’s left.
But as Neasham assessed his situation, he saw some things he won during his trial. The first thing on his list was his family. He had a wife who stuck by him and, as a stay-at-home dad, he got to know his kids. He was there for the big moments he would have missed
He is not living in his dream house on a hill but he is living the dream he had of having a close family. He now knows he doesn’t need the fancy house or car. He just wants enough to support his family comfortably. He said he’ll be happy to make a small fraction of what he used to earn.
He also learned the value of friends, people he didn’t even know before his arrest. Two key figures helped Neasham obtain a pro bono law firm that eventually won the appeal. They were Larry Nevonen and Dick Weber.
Nevonen is an insurance producer and attorney in the Los Angeles area who was appalled by the injustice. Weber was the president of the Society of Financial Service Professionals who saw not only the injustice but also the harm that the precedent could set for everybody else.
While others argued whether indexed annuities are good products or whether Neasham should have sold one to an elderly client, Nevonen and Weber stepped forward and said there is a person in the center of all this. And that person could have been anybody who has ever sold an annuity to anyone.
They had empathy, an eye toward the greater good and the drive to right a wrong. Heroes are not caped crusaders who leap tall buildings and lift cars off victims. They are the ones who work tirelessly to help long after everybody else gawked, offered an opinion and moved on.
This knowledge is something else Neasham has, his understanding of true grace.
We can make a difference that multiplies down the line, but usually not in the big events in which headlines are made. In fact, when we show small compassion in our everyday lives, we set in motion the things that prevent cataclysm.
The county district attorney could have put ambition aside and could have seen that the Neasham case was an unfair prosecution that would eventually destroy a business that a family relied on. A dad could have cancelled a regular Saturday morning tee time and spent time with the son he barely knew and later went awry. A driver could have eased off the gas just slightly, yielded to someone merging into traffic and prevented a fatal pile-up accident on the entrance ramp.
It all stems from understanding that there is always a person in the center of these things, somebody who could easily be you or someone you love.
Neasham had to lose quite a bit to find these gifts. Sometimes that is the only way many of us earn understanding.
So, before you move on, let me ask you this again: What do you have?
Steven A. Morelli