Friday, October 26, 2012

Opportunity Cost

A few years back I had an employee who was an Iraq war veteran.  During his tour of duty his marriage had disintegrated and his life had fallen apart.  One day I noticed that there was faint writing on his toolbox.  Upon closer inspection I found the following quotes:

"There is no such thing as what might have been."
"It's never to late to be the man you've always wanted to be."  

I liked both quotes instantly.  As one who desperately wanted to be someone else, someone better than what I had become, I felt hopeful to think that it wasn't too late for me.  At the same time, giving up on the idea of what might have been was liberating.  After all, like pain, regret is only useful until your mind or soul gets the message.  After that, it's just redundant.

But I have since realized that there is also a contradiction in these two quotes.  If the man I've always wanted to be is also the man I might have been, then the quotes are incompatible.

This brings me to the concept of opportunity cost.  For every choice there is a cost.  We often forget this because so often we think of cost in terms of dollars, which like gold, have an arbitrary value and little intrinsic utility.  (Gold is a good conductor, dollars are good kindling.  Sometimes those functions are very useful, sometimes not so much.)

So if you buy something that costs one dollar, the price paid is not one dollar.  The price is the value of the best foregone alternative.  That alternative might have been anything else you could have purchased with that dollar, or the value of burning that dollar to kindle a fire.  In post WWI Germany, their currency was devalued so much due to hyperinflation, they did exactly that.  A bundle of Marks was cheaper than a bundle of wood, and some people literally heated their homes with money.

Purchase decisions are only a small fraction of our choices however, and as I said before, for every choice there is a cost.  The cost of everything then, isn't to be expressed with dollar signs.  The cost of everything is "what might have been".

When I think of all the choices each person makes every day, every choice a branch in space-time leading to infinite possible universes, infinite "might have beens," and I contemplate the magnitude of history, I wonder how it's possible for anyone to experience the best combination of circumstances or to be the best they could have been.

Maybe that's why I like the song The Late Greats by Wilco so much.  The line, "The best songs never get sung, the best life never leaves your lungs, so good you won't ever know, you can't hear it on the radio. . ." pretty-much sums it up.

Most of my life I believed in a God whose atonement made it possible to be forgiven and to make a fresh start.  I believed in a Savior who paid the price of my sins, but I quantified that price the way we quantify the price of material goods.  Dollars or drops of blood, it was one good in exchange for another.

Recently it became necessary to believe in an atonement infinitely more expansive, and a God infinitely more merciful.  I don't want to just be forgiven, I want to be plucked out of this universe, and inserted into the one where I made the right choices.

That's the thing about Grace-- it isn't just reformative, it is also regenerative.  The atonement doesn't just pay the price of our sins.  It pays the opportunity cost.  In spite of all the opportunities, blessings, and richness foregone, the atonement enables us to become the men and women God has always wanted us to be, and to be the people we might have been.

Sometimes when I pay close attention, I catch myself enjoying a golden moment, when I feel the overwhelming warmth of "all is as it should be".  For a moment I find myself standing in the other myself's shoes, the ones that walked the right path.


Unknown said...

Great stuff, Dave! Proud to be your friend :)

Todd C said...

Hey Dave,
Boo's brother Todd here, hope you are doing great, thanks for being so good at describing Grace the way you do. It has helped me to ponder this idea, I have felt that power too.