Know when to fold 'em
The lesson I'm finding hardest right now.
We were on the subway in New York and I was going point by point through my latest fight with Amazon. “I can’t afford to keep not filling their orders, but it’s so wrong, they’re so rotten. It’s such a rotten company.”
He patted my hand as I talked but didn’t say a word.
“Damn it,” I said, “I just don’t know what to do. I don’t want to let them win.”
He looked down the car and started humming. Was he ignoring me? Then I heard the words, a soft murmur, as he turned back.
You've got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away.
We burst out laughing, and I took his unspoken advice. It was a valuable lesson. (Ironically, it also helped me make the decision to leave him a few years later.)
The song, “The Gambler,” was a huge hit in 1978. You can listen below, or read the lyrics here. It came to mind again last week.
Last week I pulled the plug on a trip to London. I would have been there right now, perhaps walking across Hyde Park with a friend. London is still home, somehow in my bones. I miss it with an intensity that’s hard to explain.
And I was especially eager to spend time with a dear friend I met only a few years ago in the course of my book research, Sheila Mitchell Keating, a remarkable woman who published her first book when she was 94: “H R F Keating's widow writes her husband's biography.” (You can order it here.)
I was prepared for the hassle of testing and quarantine on arrival, testing again before I flew home, and ready to mask up and social distance. But Omicron cases were increasing, an additional test was going to be required, and the Boris Johnson government seemed even more out of its league than ever. I looked up Norway, where friends were planning to fly. There, the information was clear. Tests were readily available and free. In contrast, going to Britain was bound to be confusing and risky and expensive.
My hand lingered over the keyboard. I finally pushed the button to cancel my flight.
It felt right but it felt terrible. London now seems far away.
I am sure you’ve experienced the same thing in some way over the past 20 months. Plenty of people have been separated from loved ones, from children and parents and grandparents and even spouses. Charlie Sykes at The Bulwark wrote about his “crushing disappointment” in having to cancel a trip to France because of Omicron and how his grandchildren are growing up and he’s missing it.
I have a son who lives in Beijing. I haven’t been able to put my arms around him since Christmas 2018. It makes me cry to write that.
I also felt like a failure for canceling the trip to London. I felt like a weakling, a coward, for not toughing it out, taking the risk, going for it.
But I thought of my daughter’s lectures on the “sunk cost trap.” Investopedia.com explains it rather eloquently:
Sunk cost trap refers to a tendency for people to irrationally follow through on an activity that is not meeting their expectations. This is because of the time and/or money they have already invested. The sunk cost trap explains why people finish movies they are not enjoying, finish meals that taste bad, keep clothes in their closet that they’ve never worn and hold on to investments that are underperforming. The sunk cost trap is also called the Concorde fallacy after the failed supersonic Concorde jet program that funding governments insisted on completing despite the jet’s poor outlook.
It’s logical to wait but I’m just so disappointed, so sad. I hate to lose. I hate to surrender.
All of us do.
This got me thinking about famous surrenders. I think you’ll find these examples interesting, even instructive, because they reveal that surrenders are very different indeed. And that the results are hard to predict.
Here is Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce (1840?-1904), who was known to his people as "Thunder Traveling to the Loftier Mountain Heights," in a famous speech:
Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are - perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.
That was not the end. But Chief Joseph knew the time had come for him to stop.
Here is the speech that brought World War II to an end, Emperor Hirohito’s surrender in 1945. The line that most astounds me is this:
To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by our imperial ancestors and which we lay close to the heart.
Self-justification and self-pity can make surrender less painful, but it’s horrible to read a statement like that and think of all the people who suffered and died at the hands of Emperor Hirohito’s army.
Some of us tend to take the other route, filled with regrets, retracing our steps, trying to figure out where we went wrong or some alternative path we missed.
But I’m hoping there is a new lesson in these disappointments. I’m telling myself that toughing it out now means cultivating more of the fortitude and flexibility and creativity we’re going to need in the years ahead.
I thought of a wonderful story that the historian Heather Cox Richardson tells about the Battle of Mobile Bay. There will be times when it has to be “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
Folding ’em doesn’t mean total surrender.
Remember that battle I was having with Amazon? I did decide to fold then, to give in and surrender, but I’m fighting again now. I haven’t folded this time, not yet.
Please stay in touch!
Warm regards, Karen.