In class XI, Mr Umapathy, our accounts teacher, taught us about sunk costs. Almost immediately, my classmates and I were distracted from this term because it mentioned a new one, erection charges. Mr Umapathy had to give us his patented world-weary teacher look for a full 2 minutes to shut us up.
I next thought of sunk costs in my 20s when friends and acquaintances started talking about having “invested" years in relationships. This word was a sudden invocation of the pseudo-rational in our lives—as if we loved the bearded boys and girls with tragic eyes for any rational reason. We were all in terrible romances that were, if anything, more Ponzi schemes than mutual funds. Why don’t I leave? Why don’t you leave? we asked each other and ourselves. And thus it was slowly revealed to me that the world has two kinds of lovers. The ones who leave and the ones who can’t.
The poet W.H. Auden, a man much addicted to typology, believed there were six kinds of loves, erotic category, eight kinds of love, general category, two kinds of art, two kinds of men and so on. Would Auden have done well in Mr Umapathy’s accounting classes? I don’t know. Would Auden have been distracted by erection charges? For sure.
For our purposes, let us agree that the world has two kinds of lovers. I was a Leave and was for years continuously baffled by the Stays. Especially when the Stays stayed in the face of neglect, meanness and boredom. They stayed despite the delusions of grandeur and despite the pettiness of lies. They may have suffered in silence or complained bitterly but they stayed. Then I was briefly a Stay and thank heavens I was because it has made me much less of a jackass to those who stayed.
At heart, though, I remain a Leave. In the Bible, a man named Lot is told that his family and he can escape the doom that’s about to strike their sinful city if they flee without looking back or stopping in the plains. They fled but Lot’s wife looked back and was promptly turned into a pillar of salt. Even without this fear of being turned into a non-iodized product, when I leave I rarely feel the impulse to look back
In my experience, those who stay despite daily unhappiness are often affected by the weight of sunk costs. It is a calculation that unfailingly sets a higher price on the past than the future. These lovers look at the years or even months (remember monthiversary celebrations?) spent as if they were Burmese pigeon-blood rubies and feel it would be an existential extravagance to break up. The accounting phrase “cut your losses" fills them with despair. If at 27 you won’t break up with your horrible girlfriend because you have been with her for one-and-a-half years, what do you make of this decision if you are still with her at 37? At 37, when you look back, 27 seems so young and the moment you should have fled. Now again, it’s too late to leave.
People fall for sunk-cost thinking everywhere, of course. From the war in Afghanistan to storing expensive clothes that don’t fit to doubling down when you are on a losing streak at a cards party. The more I think of it, the more I have begun to wonder whether it’s just that the Stays value the past more than the future. It is also that the Stays have a precarious grip on the present. For those who are in the fierce thrall of sunk costs, the present is too slippery, so they are always too old and it’s always too late. In the shattering words of the song from the Rajkumar film Operation Diamond Racket: If you come today, it’s too early. If you come tomorrow, it’s too late. Did you say morning? No, no, it’s not good. Did you say evening? No, no, it’s too bad. Did you say noon? No, no, it’s not the time. What did you say? Eh what did you say? Nothing? Oh, it’s all right.
This is not to say that once a Stay/Leave, you remain that forever. One can imagine Lot’s wife, older and with a sharper haircut, now living far from the plains, looking into the mirror and deciding it’s time to leave the (cough) whole Lot.
Having admitted which side of the Stay/Leave debate I belong to, I am ready to admit my enormous admiration for those who leave, and, by the act of leaving, arrive in new places. Here is a favourite story. Kathryn Joosten took acting lessons at age 42, two years after a divorce, at an age when women performers are often treated as if they are unemployable. It was her mother’s deathbed confession that she bitterly regretted not following her own dreams that turned Joosten away from her life as a suburban housewife and her earlier career as a nurse. She was 52 when she was hired as a street performer in Disney World; 59 when she was cast as Mrs Landingham, President Bartlet’s secretary in the TV show The West Wing, 63 when she won her first Emmy.
Closer home, two friends went this week for football tryouts for the women’s state team in Karnataka despite their 30-something amateur status. They were reportedly terrible and got yelled at by small children but were very pleased with themselves. They know like Auden that in headaches and in worry/ Vaguely life leaks away,/And Time will have his fancy/ To-morrow or to-day.
If Time will have his fancy, you might as well too.
Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.