Falling Into the PIT

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Last week, the number of American deaths in Iraq related to the invasion and occupation of that country surpassed the number of people (2,973) who died in the events of September 11, 2001. On the occasion of that tragic milestone, George W. Bush intoned that none of those deaths will be "in vain" because, according to his spokesman, the President believes all lives are "precious."

Yet he also reiterated his commitment to continue sending young people into a cauldron of blood that continues to roil and shows no sign of simmering down, much less cooling off, no matter how much flesh or other material is tossed into or removed from it. Since he made his pronouncement, the death toll has passed 3,000 and the Commander-in-Chief seems to think that even more must be thrown into the crucible.

Young lives have been wasted, and he’s going to redeem them by sending more to die? Since I have resolved, for this New Year, to be a more charitable person, I will refrain from accusing him of callow cynicism or cognitive dissonance.

Instead, I will see his behavior as symptomatic of ensnarement in what Harry Browne (in How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World) called the "Past Investment Trap." Mr. Browne may have had few equals in his commitment to personal liberty, along with many talents. But it seems that one of those talents was not one for recognizing an apt acronym when he saw one. So I will take the liberty of using it here: Henceforth, I will refer to Past Investment Trap as PIT.

Recognizing PIT, at least when someone else is falling into it, is pretty easy. Any time someone throws good money after bad or tries to redeem or justify the time and effort expended on a scheme that hasn’t worked and most likely won’t, he or she is falling into the PIT.

Nearly any government program is, or turns into a PIT. So do companies and organizations whose raison d’être is some product, service, method or idea that is no longer or never was useful or feasible. (I think of empires, among other things.) It’s not hard to understand and even sympathize with people when they act out of desperation when a career to which they’ve committed large portions of their time, money and energy becomes unneeded — or when they become unneeded in it.

Into Browne’s category we can also place people who try to prop up marriages and other relationships that are no longer, or never were, beneficial to anyone involved in them. Countless people have stayed with someone who is abusive or otherwise detrimental to their well-being because they have already spent so many years with that person and cannot imagine life any other way.

As I mentioned earlier, we can almost always spot someone else who’s falling into a PIT. However, it’s so much more difficult to see when we ourselves are in danger of drowning. Harder still is distinguishing PIT situations from those that actually require more time, money or effort or other resources.

This is especially true when those resources are human. It’s one thing to misuse money in an attempt to recoup what one has lost; one can somehow find ways to replenish one’s financial resources. On the other hand, one cannot recoup lost time or lives. That is the reason why expending more of either is usually a losing proposition.

Now, I am not saying that if your marriage isn’t what you’d hoped it would be, you should walk away from it. Or that you should change careers if the one you’ve pursued is not as satisfying or lucrative as you’d hoped it would be. Nearly all marriages and careers have at least some positive aspects: Why else do people stay in them long enough to suffer a "midlife crisis?" Still, I think we should learn to recognize when a situation will not improve no matter how much we increase our commitment to it. I also think that no one can justify expending someone else’s resources — including his or her life — merely in order not to be proven wrong.

So, in keeping my New Year’s resolution, I’ll hold out hope that George, Condi, et al., will keep themselves from falling into the PIT again. Or we may simply have to drag them, and our young people and ourselves, away from the precipice.

Doing otherwise would be, as we used to say, the pits. And so, at least for me, would breaking another New Year’s resolution!

Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.

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