Champions of the Lost Cause

Obsession, defiance, grit: The line between indomitable genius and hopeless holdout is blurred. We all have the capacity to chase unlikely dreams, but for some people, the pursuit becomes its own reward.

By Kat McGowan, published March 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Many did leave, but many dug in and stayed on. Even as the tanks rolled in, they planted their gardens and renovated their homes. As late as April, a group of residents in the seaside town of Shirat Hayam, in Gaza Strip, were hard at work building a brand new synagogue.

"We're deliberately repressing it, strategically refusing to deal with the possibility that it's a lost cause," school supervisor Michael Picard told the Chicago Tribune. "I won't pack up anything, and I will believe until the last minute that it won't happen." Another settler vehemently seconded his defiance: "We trust in God that he will nullify this decree."

Their attempt to hang on was a quintessential lost cause: a pointless and foreseeable failure. As promised, the army removed all the settlers by mid-August, many of them by bodily force. By mid-September, Palestinian children were playing on the beach.

You don't have to look so far from home to find examples of people who can't or won't recognize hopeless odds. Harry Truman, an 83-year-old curmudgeon who made his last stand at his lodge near Mount Saint Helens, had his moment of fame when he refused to listen to the geologists who told him in the spring of 1980 that the volcano was going to blow. Determined to defend his property, he hunkered down there at the base of the volcano with his pink Cadillac and his 16 cats—right through the torrent of ash that killed him. It was man against mountain, and the mountain won.

Paging Saint Jude: there's a whole world of people who refuse to give up on lost causes. From promoters of Esperanto (The International Language That Works!) to the stalwarts of the Flat Earth Society, some people's persistence goes far beyond the ordinary—and perhaps beyond good judgment. Modern-day royalists? Shakers? You may think their goals will never see the light of day, but they persist—despite the odd looks and the long odds.

In truth, it's not easy to predict who will turn out to be a visionary and who a crank, says psychologist Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the traits that lead to success. Geniuses and catastrophic failures share many of the same characteristics, including determination, intense concentration, passion, and a disregard for conventional wisdom. "And both are willing to persist when everyone else thinks it's a ridiculously low-probability idea," she adds.

Sometimes, the passion is fueled by pathological stubbornness or tragic obsession. A man who stands up to an exploding mountain is obviously taking grit a little too far. Other people get caught in narrow spirals of compulsion: Alcoholics and gamblers, for example, become fixed on self-destruction. Obsessive-compulsives and anorexics drive themselves relentlessly toward their idea of perfection—an impossible goal.

But true lost causes are more complex than obsessions. They're double-edged, blending psychic rewards with the guarantee of defeat. Whether through the roiled-up hormonal chemistry of an unrequited romance, the passion for a struggling sports team, or the reinforcing ties of a community of fellow believers, devotion to the cause brings pride, joy, and deep gratification along with frustration. The rewards are so great and the motives so deep that the struggle goes on, despite the evidence that you can never win.

Commitment to a lost cause also matures over time. Maybe you're born to a place that is changing despite your efforts to stop it; maybe you become enchanted with an idea that's ahead of its time. What starts as an ordinary mistake or stroke of bad luck takes root and grows until it becomes part of who you are. You're hooked, and that commitment fosters camaraderie, stokes motivational systems in the brain, and offers a pathway out of the tedium of everyday life. Under these conditions, failure can feel exactly like success.

The Underdog: Why Losers Have More Fun

Nobody chooses to be a fan of the Chicago Cubs, the most beloved of all of baseball's losers. Being a Cubs fan chooses you—and then it defines who you are. "It's part of my life, not just a diversion," says Al Yellon, who went to his first game at age 7 and has attended almost every one of the team's home games since 1997—some 1900 in all.

Wrigley Field regulars are a fan paradox. Most people follow a team for the chance to exult when their team wins. They become so closely identified with the players that their hormones surge and ebb according to the team's performance. Fans actually pay a physiological price when their team loses, which explains why people gravitate toward winners.

So why would you love a team that is legendary for losing? In baseball, Cubs fans are notorious for their passion and their devotion, much more so than fans of perennial winners like the New York Yankees. Most of the tickets sell before the season even starts, and despite last year's lousy performance, Wrigley had its second-highest attendance ever.

Being a Cubs fan transcends the devastation of losing for the simple reason that misery loves company. "There's that us-against-them mentality, and the feeling that failure gives you character—that it provides a background to help you deal with life in general," says Yellon, 49. "Life can be a series of failures, so you're a better person for dealing with adversity."

Yellon and the other regulars function like a family. They go to each other's weddings and funerals, vacation together, and take care of each others' kids. When they can't get to a game, they post online. Yellon gets up to 4,000 hits a day on his blog,

The bond among these fans is profound, says anthropologist Holly Swyers of Lake Forest College in Chicago, who studies Wrigley regulars and counts herself among them. "Each year, we all come together and share that hope. And when our hope is lost, as it frequently is, those same people buoy us up. The more you suffer at the hands of the Cubs, the deeper the ties you feel to the people who've suffered with you." If the Cubs do win, you get to celebrate with your best friends. If they lose, the disappointment only tightens the bonds.

Yellon insists that he and his allies really do want the Cubs to win. But sports psychologist Daniel Wann—yet another Cubs fan—suspects that may not be true for all. His research has shown that being a fan of any kind of team is good for your health, as fandom fosters community connections and social ties. "Those are happy people at Wrigley, because they're getting a boost to social well-being that's not contingent on the team's success," says Wann, of Murray State University in Kentucky. "There's nothing magical here—you could get that same benefit from religious affiliations or linking up with friends. It's just that there are a lot of fans."

Last Woman Standing In Last Chance, USA

Since 1980, Pam Whelden has been fighting a losing battle against a toxic waste dump in her tiny prairie town of Last Chance, Colorado. It started as a "not in my backyard" kind of thing. But over the years, the fight became a principled stand: She wasn't going to let anybody shut her up. "You learn that you've got to stand up once in a while, or they're going to walk right over the top of you," she says.

She and her husband Leroy have a 3,000-acre parcel of land just outside the crossroads of Last Chance. Leroy Whelden's grandfather homesteaded this land almost a century before, and they enjoyed the life of rural ranchers—quiet, free from big-city problems.

That all changed when a major garbage-hauling company began building a 325-acre hazardous-waste disposal site just three miles from their house. Once Whelden got wind of the plans, she began fighting the permit along with her neighbors and the local government. Predictably, it took years to even get the first major decision. Through small-town tactics like bake sales and a pickup-truck raffle, the coalition raised $250,000 for attorneys and consultants. They did manage to stall the process, but by 1991, the site was accepting hazardous waste: debris from toxic chemical cleanup, leftovers from refineries, paint residues, and contaminated wastewater from mines and remediation sites.

The landfill has changed hands six times, racking up some 2,000 safety violations and culminating in an explosion, says Whelden. In the latest twist, the current owners want to start processing low-level radioactive waste.

Whelden and her neighbors are fighting this one, too, but it's getting harder for her to find partners. Many people have grown tired of it. Besides, Last Chance is suffering in other ways. The town is fading. There are only a handful of families left. An extended drought has made it hard to find water for their cattle. Recently, the last shop and the last restaurant closed, leaving only a school and a little church—and a 64-mile round-trip commute to buy a loaf of bread.

But Whelden isn't discouraged. Nor is she bitter. She describes her 26-year losing struggle as "a good experience." Along the way, she met the governor, she testified in front of the state legislature, and she became an expert in hazardous-waste disposal, and the ins and outs of local government. "I've made a lot of friends, that's one thing that they can't take away from us," she says. "That, and the education."

Sometimes, in this kind of battle, the struggle becomes its own reward. Psychologists call it "intrinsic motivation": What keeps you in the fight is the pleasure of doing it, and the belief that it's worth doing no matter the results. The original cause is still there, but the real point becomes proving you can't be squashed. Like Rocky, you don't have to prevail in order to succeed. You just have to hang in there.

Since nothing has convinced Whelden to quit, she has, in a sense, won. "I was raised to believe that when something is not right, you want to keep trying to change that to make it right," says Whelden. "When you get your mind made up, you know you won't win many of the battles, but you may make a lot of difference along the way."

The Unrequited Lover: When Chemistry Won't Let You Quit

Steve Stonebraker hit it off with his new coworker right away. He was a grad student; she was a pretty young administrative worker. The conversation was easy and friendly. There was one problem: She lived with her boyfriend.

Stonebraker didn't come on too strong, although he did let her know he was interested. (She said she was flattered, but taken.) Over the months, the friendship deepened, and soon, he was carrying a mighty big torch. "I knew she wasn't available, but I couldn't help myself from becoming attached," he says. "I wound up falling in love." In his heart of hearts, he knew it wasn't going to work. It was just that it was intoxicating to talk to her.

Intoxicating indeed. Researchers who study the physiology of love distinguish between the first, passionate stages and the later, more settled and companionable forms of love, and they find that the first phases of love—the same ones that come on line during a crush—really do addle the brain. Early-stage love activates many of the same regions as do addictive drugs. Serotonin activity changes, fueling anxiety ("he didn't call me today!") and obsession ("I can't get her out of my mind!"). People in the first stages of love may have serotonin levels that are estimated to be as low as those with unmedicated obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Cortisol, the stress-related hormone that is activated to help the body prepare for challenges, also increases, finds Italian researcher Donatella Marazziti of the University of Pisa. Forming new bonds is stressful, and in a circular effect, these moderate levels of stress also drive attachment. Once formed, the attachment then eases the stress and anxiety. Intense, passionate new love mellows and ripens into comfortable partnership.

But that transition never happens for the obsessive suitor, who is denied the soothing effects of mature affection. Trapped in a neurochemical loop that reinforces the obsessive behavior, the lover is increasingly miserable and devoted to his or her goal.

This is the scenario of "frustration attraction," as described by the anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University. High levels of dopamine urge all lovers toward their expected reward: connection with the beloved. But for unrequited lovers, dopamine-producing neurons continue their elevated activity. Expectation rises, and the lover redoubles his efforts. For a few people—perhaps those who already have low serotonin—this neurochemical barrage turns ugly: Low serotonin is associated with impulsive violence. Many people have suffered from unrequited love, but only a few resort to stalking. The most persistent suitors may get stuck in a kind of chemical overdrive where others collapse into defeat and despair, suggests Fisher collaborator Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine.

It took eight months for Stonebraker's situation to become unbearable. Finally, his love interest stood him up, and he confronted her. It was over before it had really begun.

In an effort to move on, he created a tongue-in-cheek guide for the unrequited lover, with tips on daydreaming (don't be afraid to be corny!) and "other self-torture." When Stonebraker put the guide on the Web a few years ago, he became an accidental guru for unhappy lovers. Hundreds of people have sent him their own stories, seeking advice and commiseration. But his personal days of yearning are over. In the long-run, he says of unrequited love, "it's pointless."

The Immortalist: When the Challenge is Eternity

For a strapping 22-year-old, Michael Anissimov spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about death. At an age when most young men are convinced that dying is something that happens only to other people, Anissimov is obsessed with halting aging and death altogether.

At the age of 18, he helped found the Immortality Institute, a nonprofit that promotes life-extension research in order to "conquer the blight of involuntary death." He's begun the paperwork necessary for having himself cryonically suspended—frozen for the future, should he die before the technologies that he believes will lead to greatly extended lifespans become available. "Death is just a technical problem," he says. "People react strongly to the idea of living hundreds of years, but the body doesn't care if we think it's radical to preserve it."

Life extentionists, cryogenics enthusiasts, and longevity buffs have an image problem, thanks in large part to guys like the inventor Ray Kurzweil, who sucks down hundreds of supplements and drinks 10 cups of green tea every day with the conviction that it will prolong his life. Also not helping: geneticist Aubrey de Grey, the wild-looking, raggedy-bearded Oxford professor who proclaims that at least one person alive today may live to be 1,000 years old.

It's easy to poke fun at them. What's less avoidable than death? But just as natural as death is the urge to rise above it. And that desperate need for existential permanence is ultimately what motivates us to sacrifice ourselves for everything from art to religion to politics.

When reminded of death by something as simple as a photo of a grave, people react by adhering more tightly to their social values and their self-image. Liberals become more tolerant, religious people more spiritual, racists more consumed with hate. "By being a good American, a caring parent, a committed sports fan, a creative musician, or a brilliant scientist, and by believing in the ultimate importance and value of such pursuits, one is able to feel part of something that extends into eternity," writes University of Maryland psychologist Mark Dechesne in a recent paper on the subject of terror management theory, the branch of psychology that tries to explain this behavior.

In the end, banking on immortality through cryonics could be more plausible than believing in a second, eternal life. "It might be the most rational form of striving for immortality," says Dechesne. "The only irrational thing is that you're hoping to get it while science has not yet given any indication that it is feasible."

But life-extension research is moving into the mainstream. Perhaps as many as 10,000 people worldwide, including scientists and investors, are actively involved in these communities. "Deviating from the mainstream by yourself is quite different than deviating from it with others who are successful, intelligent, insightful, and willing to discuss unpopular beliefs together," says Anissimov. He may not live forever, but he'll benefit from a thriving community of other dreamers as long as he does.

And he'll reap more than the benefit of friendship: Embracing his goal, he exercises, and eats vegetarian. And just like everyone else, he hangs on to the idea that something—in this case science—will eventually be able to conquer death. It's a long shot, but at least the cause is built on that most triumphant of human capacities: hope.