Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Lost-causing

My friend Jonathan used to call me "the patron saint of lost causes".

I knew that this was a completely ridiculous statement. After all, a prerequisite to being "the patron saint of lost causes" would be the existence of "lost causes". Duh!

Whenever I would point out to Jonathan this quite obvious flaw in his assumption-set, he would sigh and say something like, "See, you've made my point."

We would then proceed to discuss lost causes, Jonathan seeking not only prove their existence, but also, the relatively high rate at which they're encountered. For someone who believed in not spending time on lost causes, Jonathan spent an awful lot of time trying to win me over to his perspective.

Our debates always ended up with analysis of specific examples. Jonathan didn't fair well on a theoretical level because lost-cause would imply zero-percent probability, and zero-percent probability doesn't exist. So he would quickly switch to hypothetical examples.

Jonathan says something like, "Let's say you're a quadriplegic midget who wants to play basketball in the NBA. You've got to admit that you'd be a lost cause, right?"

I say, "What if we developed a neurological bypass that reanimated my arms and legs? Or what if we came up with a hormone therapy that not only regrew damaged neurological tissue, but as a byproduct caused overall growth?"

Jonathan rolls his eyes and begins to say something sardonic. Then he stops, takes a breath and says something like, "OK, we might be able to do that."

The theoretical and hypothetical off the table, we switch to examples involving people we both know. Jonathan makes his case citing example after example of the person's ineptitude, lack of followthrough or plain old laziness. I listen agreeing with each observation. Jonathan finishes and looks at me expectantly. I say, "It's not that I disagree with your observations, it's just that I don't believe they add up to lost-cause."

Jonathan says, "So then, you really believe he's going to turn around and become successful?"

I say, "No. I just don't believe he's a lost cause."

Jonathan says, "So, what's the difference?"

I say, "If nothing changes, then he'll never succeed. Since he's been doing this for thirty years, the likelihood of him spontaneously changing seems low. However, he might simply have never had the right motivation to change. Give him the right motivation and miracles could occur."

Jonathan says, "And I suppose you know what that is?"

I say, "I don't know. I've got some ideas."

And so it would go.

All said and done, Jonathan's motivation for identifying lost causes was simply time-management. You don't want to pour a lot of time and effort into something that has no chance of succeeding. I agree with his rationale; I just don't like the side-effects of deciding that someone is a lost cause or using lost-cause as a reason to give up on someone.

First, I find that I'm happier believing in people than not. The absence of "lost-cause" in my psychological vocabulary feels good.

Second, if there were such a thing as lost-cause, then anyone could be a lost cause, including you and me. I prefer not to believe that about myself and find it really useful not to.

Third, it would be impossible to tell who was and who wasn't a lost cause. Sure, you'd have your "obvious" lost causes, e.g., the unrepentant thief or the alcoholic who left to himself heads immediately to the bar. However, there would also be the promising causes who out-of-the-blue fall victim to accidents or illness. You just never know if the person you see today will be the same person tomorrow or if she'll be there at all.

Fourth, using lost-cause as a motivation or justification for action has such negative side-effects. You see it all the time when people end relationships.  Feeling that he must first do everything possible to "make it work", he makes the situation impossible by transforming his partner into a lost cause.

Parents of challenging kids often do the same thing when they feel they just can't take it anymore. Their self-images can't tolerate having "quit" on their children, so they make the children lost causes.

In either case (partner or child), the need to make someone a lost cause in order to move on blinds you to the possibilities. Sure, you may not want to continue as you've been and you may feel really uncomfortable with that desire. However, there are many better ways to deal with your discomfort than lost-causing someone.

All that said, Jonathan had a good point. Not lost-causing can lead to your spending a lot of time actively believing in people who have no intention of changing despite their own claims to the contrary.

Being finite, you it makes sense to focus on some rather than others. Question is: how do you decide in whom to invest?

Happy Tuesday,
Teflon

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