The Sunk Costs of Being Special

The Sunk Cost Fallacy describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits…The sunk cost fallacy means that we are making irrational decisions because we are factoring in influences other than the current alternatives. The fallacy affects a number of different areas of our lives leading to suboptimal outcomes.” 

I was always told I could be special. I wanted to be special. I wanted to be seen and I was willing to do the work.

I will start with a confession.

Earlier this week, after the January 6, 2021 United States Capitol Insurrection, I messaged a friend, asking him to look at a couple of aggressively far right Facebook pages. The pages I was directing him to are riddled with mean-spirited memes sprinkled in between “our God is the right God” posts, “we are true patriots” posts, “pray for Trump our great and misunderstood leader” posts, “disparaging Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Obama,” posts (obviously),” “ANTIFA stormed the Capitol, not the peaceful rightwing patriots” posts, “the 2020 election is a fraud stolen by an evil cabal of child molesters” posts, and of course, “Mitt Romney has chosen the side of the devil,” posts. I asked my friend to look because I wanted someone else to validate the incongruous hate I saw. I wanted my friend to see. Then I wanted him to understand. 

He read. He laughed. He questioned. He understood. Then he “absolutely” agreed with me. And I felt special.

What I struggle to reconcile is that the beliefs conveyed within posts like these often come from people I love, respect and admire. The particular posts I directed my friend to come from the Facebook pages of the husband and wife who introduced my family to the Mormon Church. And you know what? I was always told they were special. To this day, if you were to ask one of our peers who was the most admired, most special member of our congregation, it would be them. It would not matter if they went to jail or if I cured cancer. I get it. They would always win. They were intoxicating. They were also the LDS (*The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) people I believe we were raised to aspire to be. Consequently, we never dared to question their motives. We definitely believed in the vitamins they were selling and the end-of-the world prophecies they were preaching. I also believed if I could be like them, that if I could live like they did and believe in their God, I would be special too. 

I was a young child in Minnesota when I met this particular husband and wife (and their family). They were extraordinary pillars of our western-Minneapolis suburban community. They were glamorous. Their kids were good looking and super popular. They had an endless stream of money, beautiful clothes, cars, TVs in their cars, visits from famous people, and an Olympic-sized gym to play all their Mormon basketball. On several acres of land, high on a hill, their giant gym sat right next to their beautiful mansion. 

They were also the other Mormons who lived in our school district. In their shadow, it was obvious that we were not as wealthy. Our house did not come with a gym. We were certainly less popular. Considering how Mormons seem to equate wealth with righteousness, (prosperity gospel), then I imagine we were also never as worthy. When their family joined the current “jogging” fad so did my family. My family often ran in the early morning at our local high school track. It was always a happy day when we ran into them. 

“See. We are just like you.” I would excitedly think.

When my parents signed up on their MLM (multilevel marketing) downstream, they assured us we would also attain riches. (That did not happen.) 

What did happen is my adorable mom was assigned by our LDS church to visit the tall, glamorous MLM mom once a month and offer her a spiritual message. Another woman from our local congregation was also assigned, as her companion, but one week, that woman was sick so my mom brought me. We reached the mansion door. I was excited when my mom pushed a button that we heard a voice come out of a little white speaker box.

“How fancy.” I thought to myself.

For some reason, she would not let us inside the house. Maybe it was because my mom showed up without the other woman who was supposed to be there. 

 (I would not see the inside of the house until they needed a babysitter years later.)

“Give me a few minutes. I will meet you in our business office. It is to the right of the intercom.” She replied. 

There, surrounded by walls of various kinds of vitamins, I sat on my mother’s lap while my mom and the mansion mom spoke about Jesus. From the windows I saw the skies turn grey and knew a big midwestern thunderstorm was headed our way. As a result, we cut the visit short. The thunder clouds emitted their loud booms. I began to cry.

As my mom and I walked to the car, I jumped into her arms, sobbing. The dad, who was milling around in the driveway for some reason, saw my tears and asked why I was afraid.

“I will follow you home. I want to make sure you are safe.” He replied.

As we drove, giant hail balls struck our car, trees fell in our path. It was apocalyptic. Every time we stopped to catch our breath so did he. As we pulled into our driveway I turned around and looked. He stopped his car, waited and he waved. 

After that there was no doubt how close they were to God. 

When they told us they prayed every morning as a family. We did the same. And for good measure, each member of my family took a turn to say our own prayer. (True story.)

I really wanted acceptance. I invested and fervently believed in the God they were teaching. When they spoke of their “I am proud to be an American” patriotism, morality, Jesus and eternal life, I knew to listen and follow their example. I did. I believed. I committed. I was determined that if I devoted enough of myself, sang in their church choirs, attended church every week, and did not have premarital sex, I could be special just like they were. Throughout my entire adolescence I tried. Oh my god I tried. I was dedicated. I was gawky, a late bloomer, and not at all cool. Stridently, I believed and I just kept on trying.

The oldest daughter was always kind. Two of the sons were always nice-ish to me and that did help. Sure. They are also human. As a result, it was excused that some of their kids were totally awful. I had a best friend who was best friends with the other sister. I often knew I was being dumped (lied to) so my best friend could hang with her. Nevertheless, as an entire family unit, they were extremely generous. They always shared their home, their giant gym, their time, their self-authored religious music and the trappings of their MLM money with our super tight knight LDS community. Within this community, I quickly learned that the tighter you became with them, the higher your social currency rose. It was not easy. Everyone in my community wanted to be connected to them, even the non Mormons. In truth, I get it. They were the compass leading us to the extraordinary. I knew my place and knew to be grateful for their acquaintance.  

Of course I took it as a compliment when the mom told me, 

“Beth, your mom sews all of your clothes and you have all that canned food from your garden. You already know how to survive the last days. We don’t. See, we have so much money. We buy our clothes. We have people to do things for us. During the second coming we will need people just like you. You will help us survive.” (I am not making this up.)

As an adult I was attending a funeral of a mutual friend when I ran into some of the members of the family. The mom asked me how I was. When she said, 

“You only have two children? What about fulfilling the measure of your creation?”

Insecurely, I blurted, “I have had several miscarriages. I cannot seem to hold my pregnancies. I am very lucky to have these two boys.”

She shot back, 

“My daughter has five kids. She had to adopt one because she just couldn’t get pregnant. She had such a hard time having her children. It was so very hard for her. Her struggles were so very very hard…”

As I listened, I melted back into place. Now in line I knew that the correct response was to acknowledge that her daughter’s pain was greater than my own. So I did. And she thanked me.

Us, Louvre Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 2019

The world is interesting. The disparity between who I was taught I should look up to and who the people I was supposed to revere actually turned out to be is breaking my brain. As they now spout evil and dangerous nonsense online, I fight the urge to give these superstars from my upbringing a pass. I feel like I should show compassion. Sometimes I do. Ultimately, though, the people I really admired, looked up to and was raised to believe seem taken advantage of, misguided and lost. Sunk costs. I am guessing that I am not alone in my feelings. 

Seeing friends while visiting NYU Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Like the superstar Mormon family from my youth, there are so many people I wanted to emulate, especially their values, truths, critical thinking and understanding. I also recognize that I should have trusted my internal compass and innate ability. I should have trusted my own critical thinking mind. I should have found a way to believe I was special without intermediating it through people that my family and peers identified as praiseworthy. I know now that I was worthy of respect all along. I am enough. But back then, instead, I doubled down and earnestly chased an external validation that I would never receive.  

Ultimately, I think it is complicated that I empathize. I think the people who stormed the Capitol (or peacefully protested — depending on how you see it) are much like the family I grew up with. They are chasing a similar and reckless need for validation. They believe they are true patriots who are doing what is right. I think the irrational need to be seen are the sunk costs that we are all drowning in. Maybe the unity we seek is the ability to see each other and to find a way to work together. Maybe then we can swim. I really hope so. ❤️