Somewhere between the vast frozen wilderness of the Antarctic and the steaming rain forests of the equator, between the unyielding heat of deserts and the frigid heights of towering mountains, most life finds a niche. But it is at the boundaries that it takes shape most clearly. Living things that cross these boundaries, like a gnarled and stunted tree hanging out of a rock above the timberline, a deer running wildly down an urban street, a child wasted by famine, jar the mind with their incongruity, their stark reality, or their horror. It is easy to imagine that in an earlier time all was harmonious; if only human actions had not upset things, all would be right with the world. But such an idyllic situation is an invention of the human mind.

Life has never been easy. What has changed is the amount of information now available to each of us. What is one to do with so much information, to so much exposure to life’s hard realities? People’s reactions vary widely. There are those who embrace the world and attempt to encompass all its beauty and relieve all its suffering. These are the ones who are passionate in pursuit of a universal solution or truth. At the other extreme there are those who close their eyes to both the beauty and the horror of the world by cloaking themselves within a protective and supportive group of friends and relatives. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, our actions determined, at least in part, by our temperaments. But it is clear these harsh realities imply will not go away.

Investing in the stock market seems to be as distant from these life-and-death dramas as it is possible to be, but investing in the market may provide a good model for investing in life. In both much depends on one’s style. In the marketplace diversification has long been a tool that has helped investors endure its fluctuations. Those who are conservative seek moderate gains with minimum risks. Others prefer a more flamboyant style; they go for the gold no matter what the consequences. During the market’s recent wild ride, conservative investors have gained less–but often have lost less–than those who have tried to strike it rich.

And so it is with life itself. Dropping a dollar in the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas provides a reasonable level of assurance that a bit of food or scrap of clothing will help someone somewhere. Chaining oneself to an old-growth redwood tree may or may not save that tree but is more likely to draw attention to the fate of the tree than the dollar-in-the-kettle does to the fate of the poor or the homeless. But both are investments in life.

Investments can be made for long-range or short-range goals, and everything in between. Saving the planet or just the rain forest or the elephants, eliminating AIDS or starvation are long-term items that may take more than a lifetime. But helping a neighbor, or even oneself when times are tough, or planting a garden or a tree may have a more immediate pay off. Each has its place in defining the outlines of life.

The market provides a dizzying array of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, money market funds, futures, and savings accounts–investments that may help assure a stable financial future. Life offers far more opportunities. One can invest in education by teaching a skill to the teenager down the block or by endowing a university chair. One can invest in health and human services by saying. “Hello, how are you?” and meaning it, by buying from a local merchant instead of a distant mega-store, or by devoting one’s life to the poor, sick, and hungry. One can invest in the arts by attending the local high school play or by underwriting a community co9ncert or art show. And one can invest in the environment by turning off an unused light or by lobbying businesses to employ best practices. The world offers thousands of choices.

Each of us has only a limited amount of time, talent, and money. how amazing and confusing it is to have the freedom to make so many choices. Sometimes these choices are at odds with each other. The Mexican farmer who raises poppies in a remote valley on marginal land to support his family has little connection to the heroin the poppies become that kills a young man in new York City. Someone seeking to help the farmer can show him how to increase his yields by using pesticides so he can provide more food for his family. The poison may cause the drinking water in a village downstream to make people sick. The increased yield of the farmer’s poppy crop will allow him to buy food and medicine for his children but will help create more heroin addicts in New York. Those in new York wishing to keep heroin from young people may seek to have the farm fields in Mexico sprayed with herbicide to kill the poppies being produced there.

Investing is not always easy. A star sparkles on the dark velvet of the evening sky. A shrill coyote call pierces the silence. A homeless Afghani woman in a brilliant maroon and blue robe crouches in front of a white tent on a barren plane with a spectacular range of mountains looming in the distance. The world reveals itself in contrasts. Contrasts will always mark the edges of life. It is the breadth of the middle ground we can shape. How wide is the niche for life? Is there room for tigers and microbes, redwoods and skyscrapers, symphonies and silence, waterfalls and dams? The stark beauties we see in the images that define life’s boundaries make us ache to extend its borders.

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