It’s a long time since I tried to sleep the night sitting up in the front seat of my car. Actually, I had no intention of doing so. It was just one of those occasions when one hour leads to two, two hours leads to four, and so it went on, until, in the early hours, I accepted that my destiny that night was to sit outside the Emergency Department at Bendigo Health while my wife, Cynthia spent a slightly warmer night inside, waiting for treatment, waiting for tests, waiting for test results.
“Emergency Department” was something of a misnomer for most of the people in the crowded waiting room that night. While there were some who had a sense of emergency and were appropriately triaged and treated, there were many others who were not in any health emergency.
For some, who seemed to have a ready comradery with each other, I suspected the waiting room was a warmer alternative to sleeping rough in the park. For others, like my wife, they genuinely needed to see a doctor.
Having tried unsuccessfully to get an appointment with a GP in one of our surrounding towns, she contacted the Telehealth Doctor. The Doctor listened and said she felt my wife needed to see a Doctor in person that night, not just through a computer screen.
So that’s how we ended up at the Emergency Department, not because of an emergency, but as a last resort to see a doctor that night. Welcome to rural health!
Of course, if they had told us at the start that this would be a 13 hour process, I am sure we would have stood up and gone home. Well, at least I would have. But the process gets you in. It is a series of hourly waits. Each passing hour has the potential of being the last. And as the hours pass you start to feel that you have invested too much time and suffered too much to pull out now.
What started out as a simple task to “Help the wife out. Drive her to the Doctor.” turned into self-recrimination and philosophical reflections about uncertainty and the mindset of a gambler chasing their losses. These are not reflections that should be undertaken when cold and uncomfortable in the front seat of the ute in the wee hours of the morning. But I found myself doing such reflection.
I had fallen for the “Sunk costs fallacy!” ‘Sunk costs’ refers to costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. In decision-making, people often consider the resources (time, money, effort) they have already invested in a particular endeavour.
It’s like the gambler who says, “I can’t stop betting now because I already bet the rent and lost, and I need to win it back or my wife will kill me!” We are all susceptible to it. We keep reading a book, watching a movie, eating a meal, living a life where we’ve invested time and money and energy and spirit. We don’t make the difficult admission that we invested poorly and simply quit. People stay in businesses, jobs, and relationships long after they should’ve made the painful choice to sever ties and move on.
And here I was, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” “Throwing good money after bad.” And feeling bad about myself in the process. One more hour…
It was a very cold night in Bendigo, 2 degrees at 5.30am. In the string of periodic text messages between us, I followed her progress from one test to another. Each test eliminated one potentially serious condition but medical curiosity and due diligence meant they too were invested in getting to the bottom of what ailed my wife.
As the sun rose, I decided to go and get some breakfast and a coffee, only to find that I had flattened the battery of the car by having the radio on all night. Fortunately, another all-nighter was leaving after having a broken finger set and I was able to use his battery pack jump starter to get my car going.
At long last, my wife appeared. Fortunately it was nothing serious, but the tests showed she had needed to see a doctor!
As we drove home we both reflected upon the night and the waiting process. Rationally, neither of us would have stayed if we had known just how long it was going to take. But the ‘Sunk Cost’ fallacy is alluring. We do it so often that it becomes part of our personalities. It becomes second nature.
We can spend years carrying belongings from place to place, packing, unpacking, investing time, long after the objects give us joy or pleasure. We also carry emotions with us, some that become little more than hindrances, as we try to navigate life weighted down, afraid to release the past.
To live into our fullness, we must break the cycle of dragging our past into our future. We must stop throwing away our lives in situations that are not of God, that don’t bring happiness, that don’t help others or the world.
Jesus came that we might have more abundant life. He announced that his mission was to “set the captives free”, not to make the prison more comfortable! Jesus tells us to live into life by being as open and receptive as children.
God’s love is written upon our hearts. When we live into God’s love, and let the past stay in the past, we can begin today to change tomorrow.
This is the gospel, and it’s good news.
Brian Spencer, Minister, Waranga Uniting Churches