1. Frog Gained < Frog Lost
In college, I owned a frog—an Indonesian White’s treefrog: plump and squishy, green skin pulled taut over delicate, angular leg bones and the tiny vertebrae of the spine. I bought the frog cheap because of some minor sores on his upper-lip—the result of a too-small cage and a couple of years of smashing into the glass walls, leaping after his food. I called him Puckerup because the redness along the top of his lip was reminiscent of lipstick—Puck for short. And I spent the first six months of frog-ownership daubing Neosporin onto his face with a Q-tip, hoping the high-impact face-plant problem would be resolved by a larger cage.
The terrarium (an old fish tank I’d purchased for 10 bucks from a lady on Craigslist) was rigged with a loose-fitting mesh top and an old five-pound circle weight to hold the mesh in place. Of course, it wasn’t the best possible enclosure, mostly because it was so easy to forget to put the five-pound weight back after feeding, which was like leaving the door of a prison-cell unlocked and slightly ajar. I usually remembered to replace the weight, but not always. And once, while my kid brother was frog-sitting, he forgot and found Puck dehydrated and shriveled-looking beneath his backpack, so I knew it was entirely possible for Puck to get a hankering for adventure and wind up almost dead.
It was a constant source of worry. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, sweaty and panicked, because I had dreamed that Puck escaped from the terrarium and crawled onto the floor, and that, unknowingly, I had jumped from the top bunk and landed—squelch—squarely on top of my frog. At the thought of sticky flesh crushed beneath my toes, I would bolt upright and peek over the edge of my mattress, panting, searching for a frog on the floor in the dimly lit room.
I remember discovering, at least once, that he had actually escaped in the middle of the night—his slick green body almost indistinguishable from the grey carpet in the dark, a pale spot on the floor near my bed. This only amplified the recurring paranoia: I was terrified of an unintended death by groggy human foot-fall.
I worry about losing things that I love fairly frequently: my frog, my husband. It’s due in part to my generally anxious state of mind, but I can’t help thinking it’s more basic than that—a fundamental part of the human predicament. We have the capacity to love, which also means we have the capacity to experience the weight, the disaster of loss. And sometimes I wonder if it’s really worth the stress—if adoring something is worth the risk of losing it.
For the last hundred years or so, economists have operated under the assumption that humans are essentially rational when it comes to financial decisions with uncertain results, like investments, gambles—that we will weigh possible risks and rewards based on the utility we can reasonably expect to receive, that our decision-making process relies on an objective weighing of pros and cons and probabilities, and not emotion. That we value all dollars equally: fifty dollars is fifty dollars, regardless of whether you gain it or lose it.
But over the last twenty years, economists have started to reconsider that assumption. In 2002, Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on “Prospect Theory,” which indicates that the decision-making process might not be so simple, after all. What Kahneman discovered isn’t surprising: We’re not entirely rational, especially when it comes to taking a gamble with our money. According to Kahneman’s research, a dollar gained and a dollar lost aren’t equal, because a loss has twice the psychological impact as an equal gain. Put into those terms, if gaining fifty dollars feels like gaining fifty dollars, then losing fifty dollar feels like losing a hundred. Which makes the whole equation a lot more complicated—the purely rational equation doesn’t reflect how a loss will feel. If, while gambling, you gain $100 dollars and then lose $80, it feels like a net loss, despite the fact that you’re still $20 ahead. Based on Kahneman’s research, humans take that amplified loss-impact into consideration during the decision-making process: What you stand to lose carries more weight than what you stand to gain, even if they are objectively equal sums. Not losing the $50 in your pocket is better, more satisfying, than finding $50 on the street.
I sold the frog when I got married—because our landlord had said “no pets allowed,” and I was too afraid to ask for an exception. In some ways it felt like an exchange, a loss for a gain, an extended version of the game “bigger or better,” where you start with something small—like the baseball your dad used to toss around with you in the backyard—and trade it for something, like a teddy bear (brown, like the one from your secret crush in 8th grade), and then you trade the teddy bear for a boom-box, which you would have loved as a teenager, because owning one made you seem retro and cool, and so on and so forth, until eventually you end up with something way bigger or better than the ratty old baseball, like a prom dress or maybe even a car, like the rusty heap on wheels you drove away to college. Only in this version, I was trading a frog for a husband. Both beings that I loved, albeit differently.
The night I sold Puck, Daniel took dozens of pictures at my request: me with Puck in my hand, me with Puck on my shoulder, me kissing Puck on his faintly pink lips, no longer in need of Q-tips. He was so patient. For half an hour, I held that frog and stroked it and admired it and asked for pictures from every angle, in every imaginable pose, and Daniel obliged. He didn’t roll his eyes, or tell me to grow up, or look at his watch—all responses that would have been reasonable, rational, given the circumstances.
After the last-minute photo session, I met the buyer, a university student a few years younger than myself, in the parking lot of a grocery store, with Daniel by my side, pocketed the thirty dollars, and transferred the terrarium from my car to hers, offering little tips about how to keep the mesh firmly in place, and how to catch the crickets, and which variety of bark-bedding to use—offering these suggestions in a chatty voice as though she could choose to disregard them entirely, and secretly wishing she looked a little more anxious to write it all down, wishing she had brought a pen and some lined paper, terrified that she would forget to replace the 5-pound weight one night and crush Puck in her sleep, or leave for a vacation in Florida for a week without a proper frog-sitter, that Puck would starve to death alone in an apartment while she was wearing a bikini on a beach.
2. To Love, (=) to Gamble
I almost couldn’t go through with it—selling the frog, getting married. I know they were decisions of totally different magnitude. But I didn’t like handing that frog to a stranger, and I also didn’t enjoy taking the plunge as a bride.
Thirty minutes before the wedding ceremony, I remember staring at myself in the mirror, hands pressed firmly against the marble countertop, wearing my white dress, and thinking to myself: What would happen if I backed out now? How much money would go down the drain? What would it do to Daniel? What would it do to my mom? What would it do to me? Weighing the pros and cons.
It’s not that I didn’t want to get married. I did. But there was so much risk involved—so much to gain, yes, but once I stepped into happiness, embraced it, I would have so much more to lose than ever before. I don’t think I recognized the thought process at the time for what it was, but I wonder now if some of my matrimonial anxiety was directly correlated to the behavior Kahneman studied—the fact that potential loss is so much more gut-wrenching than potential gain.
Daniel dropped into my life only weeks after my second breakup in under a year. I wasn’t interested in the tall, goofy guy at the rock climbing gym—in part because I was sick of getting my heart broken, and in part because he wasn’t my type: blonde, happy-go-lucky, math- and science-minded. And then, somehow, we started having these long, involved conversations about art and language and religion late, late into the night on the hood of his car, or walking along the abandoned jetty at the lake, stooping and picking up black- and white-striped stones and stashing them in our pockets while we walked.
Soon he was making pancakes for breakfast on my birthday, driving thirty minutes to rescue me when my bike popped a tire on the way home from work, showing up at my apartment dressed in poofy, paisley patterned pants, black boots, and a flowy white shirt—a “prince” outfit that he hated wearing—to take me on a Cinderella-themed date. (My idea, not his.) Everything happened so quickly. I thought of him as a summer fling, but by the end of the summer, he had proposed.
Kahneman’s work in behavioral economics demonstrated something called loss aversion: the tendency to prefer avoiding a loss over making a gain. A loss is so much more powerful—emotionally, psychologically—it’s no wonder that people avoid it. And loss aversion can lead to risk aversion, which is what economists need to consider when anticipating our financial decisions. Generally, against all rational thinking, we don’t like to make investments when the potential gains and losses are equal, because avoiding a loss is emotionally preferable to making an equal amount of gain. Avoiding loss means avoiding pain.
Which is why, when, late one summer night, Daniel said he wanted to marry me, I said nothing in response. For a full five minutes, I was quiet. And he waited, silently hoping my quiet didn’t presage coming loss. I rocked back and forth, knees tucked under my chin, and thought wildly of all the ways this could end badly: We could get engaged, only to decide in a month or two that we’d moved too quickly, and call the whole thing off; supposing we did manage to get married, any number of things could lead to unhappiness or tragedy or divorce: he could die in a car accident, he could fall in love with another woman, he could become abusive or neglectful or insane, we could lose a child and tumble apart from each other in grief, I could wake up the day after we were married and think: “What have I done?”
Even after I agreed a few weeks later, after he had placed a ring on my finger and we had addressed and mailed the invitations, after I had spent thousands of dollars on a party to celebrate our beginning, I could only manage to keep the fear at bay, at the corners of my brain, not to dispel it. I almost left my husband kneeling at the altar. Because I feared I loved him too much, not because I loved him too little. And I knew the longer I loved him, the worse my potential losses would become.
He is late coming home from work, doesn’t answer his phone, and I begin to worry, begin to see him: his body in a ditch on the side of the road, his bicycle frame a confusion of metal tangled up in his legs.
I wish I could convince my brain not to imagine the worst while I sit on our couch, clutching my phone—but it races ahead of my attempts at rational thought and begins calculating the gut-punch of loss with a rigor I don’t know how to slow. I read a book about war, and every soldier wears my husband’s face. I read the news and he is in that car, that boat, that plane, that fire. Friends tell stories about a neighbor’s battle with cancer, an uncle’s fall from the roof, and I want to seal my husband in bubble wrap, bar him from ever setting foot outside our home. And all the while I know, this is crazy. All the while, I know that I must accept that risking loss is part of love.
Listen—I’m not a nutter. In fact, I think I’m fairly normal. (We all worry. Daniel worries, too—or so he tells me—about finding a job, about being a good husband, a good father. In fact, that day, while I stood in the bathroom wearing white and wondering whether I could go through with it, he was in another room worrying that I would run, knowing that was a real possibility, knowing that was part of the gamble in proposing to an anxious woman, wary of loss.) Daniel goes to work every morning, and for the most part I don’t worry. We drive our car and ride our bikes and even do objectively risky things together, like rock climbing and sailing and camping out in the middle of the woods. (Sometimes I worry about axe murderers and grizzly bears while I lie awake in our tent, true. But I still go camping.) And most of the time, I’m okay. I remain calm. I don’t linger on the odds of the potential loss, the way my brain will double the level of my love in the form of grief, should he disappear. Because this is the only way to stay sane. The only way to keep from breaking down under the weight of what I have to lose.
But I wonder how I will ever deal with adding more to this list of losable things.
As I fell asleep when I was a kid, I’d think about my parents dying—well, not exactly. I would imagine that one of my parents had to die, and it was my job to choose which one it would be. I would deliberate, back and forth, between the potential losses—my mother, on the one hand, and my father on the other. I would feel what it would be like to lose one and then the other, trying to weigh those two versions of grief, those two losses, side by side. And I can’t remember ever actually choosing—only the deliberation, the painful imagining of what it might be like, as I drifted into sleep.
During high school and college I had a recurring dream in which my house caught fire, my room full of smoke, and I had a panicked 20 seconds to grab the most important things. My dream-self was never uncertain about what to grab—I didn’t linger over clothes or books or trinkets. It was always my journals that I slid off the bookshelf, balancing them in a stack beneath my chin—the only things I couldn’t replace. And of course, during the frog years, I’d grab Puck from his cage—holding him in my free hand as I ran from the flames.
With this track record for worry, I can only imagine how I will react if and when we ever have children. I am sure I will avoid it for a time, giving into the urges of loss aversion. And then, one day, we will weigh the pros and cons, and decide that the potential gains outweigh the potential losses, despite the risk involved, despite not having any concept for how attached we will become and how terrifying the prospect of losing a child will be, once we have one. Nightmares and daymares will abound. I will fight the urge to seal our children in bubble wrap, to keep them from danger by rigging our home with some iteration of the wire mesh contraption. They will not understand my frantic concern when they come home late from school, and I will not know how to convey to them the depth of my love, the nauseating fear of 20 minutes of potential loss. I fear that I will spend my life sitting on the couch, waiting for my children to call—that I will dream of burning houses and open doors and car accidents and falling trees and disease until the day I die. Reliving, again and again, what it might be like to lose them.
3. Probability of Wobbles: Unknown
I have a hedgehog now. My husband asked the landlord for an exception to the “no pets” rule, and because my husband is charming and hedgehogs don’t make a mess, the landlord obliged. (Let’s not discuss the fact that, had we asked about the frog, the landlord probably would have let us keep him. It still makes me sick with regret.) I jumped into hedgehog-ownership without a thought about loss—it seemed there could only be gains. An adorable, tiny companion—better than a frog, because she nuzzles up against my fingers and curls into a ball and snores quietly in the palm of my hand. But still low-maintenance and low-cost, happy to be left alone but also happy to play.
And I didn’t worry about her. Why should I worry? She was safe in her plastic tub, nibbling on her kibble and sleeping soundly in a nest of felt—not quite bubble wrap, but a happy alternative. Cushy and inescapable and free from danger. No mesh necessary, no 5-pound weight to remember. I slid my fingers beneath her pink belly and put her in my lap and watched her nose move rabbit-like, up and down, up and down, with delight. It was only joy—only pleasure.
But perhaps that’s the nature of certain investments, where the potential for loss is at first unknown. How can you know what it will feel like—what a loss, twice the sum of a gain, will be—if you haven’t any sense for how the gain, itself, will feel?
Somehow, one day, while scanning conversations in a hedgehog forum, I stumbled upon a silly sounding phrase: Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome. I probably laughed, it sounds almost playful. But playful it is not: a degenerative neurological disease that saps a hedgehog of energy and muscle, making them a little wobbly when they walk, a little tired, a little unsteady on their feet. But tiredness and wobbliness leads to exhaustion and defeat, until they can no longer stand, until they can no longer eat, until their legs go limp and their heart stops and they are gone. Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome is incurable. There is no way to know whether your hedgehog has “the wobbles” until she starts tipping over, until she starts looking a little drunk on her way to your hand.
So I am back to worry—watching for wobbles—because love is worry, at least for me. Even while my hedgehog waddles without wobbles, without even a tremor of instability. Even when everything seems to be fine.
What’s funny is that I’ve never really lost a person I loved, except a couple of great-grandparents when I was still a kid. And that was sad, certainly. But it was not the loss of a husband or a mom or a dad. I have never lost a sibling or a parent or even a grandparent (all four are still living), I have never lost a child, I’ve never even lost a pet, not really. For all I knew at the time, my rabbits ran away—it wasn’t until ten years later that my dad told me they were mauled by feral cats. And by then, the loss didn’t hit me the way it would have when I was seven. My cat ran off, too—and we asked around and checked local shelters and scanned the sides of the roads for black and white fur, but we never found her. For all I know, she wandered into somebody else’s house and decided to stay—is alive and mewling still. My sadness has only ever existed in the realm of probable loss—the realm of grief that manifests as insistent worry, rather than grief that allows you to heal.
I am inclined to avoid loss by avoiding risk—inclined to run from the altar and refuse to love longer or deeper, for fear of future pain. Which also means I am inclined to avoid happiness, to avoid gain. But when at last I have overcome my own avoidance, choking through the “I do’s” because I believe it will be worth the risk, there is another hard truth: The fear of loss does not go away, it only increases. Because the more I gain, the more I stand to lose someday. And even if it isn’t for a hundred years, I will fear it and feel it. Maybe not all of the time, but much of the time. So in the end, I am always chasing loss around my brain, keeping it at bay. Which is silly, and scary and unavoidable and real. Because whether I take the risk, or run from it, I am defined by loss. I am always wobbling between happiness and despair because of the people I love—unsteadied by joy, heartbroken by the possibility of losing them.
It was only after I fell in love with a little creature, warm in my hands, that I realized she could become wobbly and die—it was only after I fell in love with a goofy man, that I realized how badly it might hurt to lose him. And this realization makes me a little bit frantic—this weighing of potential loss and risk and gain. I know that Kahneman wasn’t trying to explain the way I think about frogs and hedgehogs and husbands and parents and children that aren’t yet mine. I know he was only talking about the weight of potential monetary loss, and not the weight of all potential losses in my mind. Something less personal, less obviously emotionally fraught. But what if his economics extend to the flesh and blood beings that I hold in my arms, making me afraid of loss and wary of investment, forever afraid to love?
A few weeks ago, the sun shone unexpectedly bright and warm, a sudden glimpse of spring after many grey March mornings. We walked to the park—Daniel carrying a blanket and a picnic of strawberries, my hedgehog cupped snuggly in my palm. We lay in the sun while she waddled and sniffed over our arms and bellies, and I did not worry. It is hardest to worry when they are close by—when I can see them breathing. And I know, from past experience, that I will keep risking potential loss—that despite my fears—we will have children, and they will make me both wild with joy and wild with fear. My net of love and worry will grow, will sometimes overwhelm me, and I will try to remind myself: She doesn’t wobble yet; today we are in love, and he is safe.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Shamae Budd