Husband & Wife Articles

A Bet and a Debt

A lesson from a ‘fool’ and his money

By Tom Hoopes

When I opened the front door in the early morning fog last week, I didn’t expect to learn a lesson in manhood, maturity and courage.

I found that no one had brought in yesterday’s mail. There sat a damp envelope whose return address caught me by surprise. It was the name of a friend from college whom I hadn’t seen or heard from in more than 20 years.

I opened it to read this note:

“I’m just coming off a 12-day diet where I lost 16 pounds of water weight. Exciting, huh? Not really … I’m still fat.

“But this diet made me think about a bet I made to lose 10 pounds in 24 hours. I distinctly remember trying really hard, losing the bet, and then somehow snaking out of paying the hundred bones. I’ve since become a man who thinks paying your losing bets is one of the most basic elements of manhood. Whether or not that’s true, I can’t believe it took me this long to pay this thing off. Please find enclosed your half of the winnings.”

Tom Hoopes, after receiving his master's degree, celebrates with April, who is carrying their ninth child.

I have been sharing the note ever since. I showed it to my children, and saw my sons’ eyes open wide with a knowing expression — they, too, have refused to pay losing bets. I showed it to my students, and saw the same expression (plus a smile at the ’80s phraseology “snaking out of paying the 100 bones”). I share it here because I think my old friend is truly on to something: Paying your losing bets is one of the most basic elements of manhood. Why?

First, it means you aren’t a liar. Refusing to pay a friendly bet means that you aren’t only willing to lie, it means you are willing to steal from a friend to defend that lie.

Now, I don’t think, and never thought, that my old friend is a liar. I thought he made a foolish bet and I never really blamed him for not paying it. But I do understand why he wanted to keep his word, even when his word had been foolish. To be true to yourself is vitally important, and if any of us is going to be true to our self, then that will mean sometimes being true to a fool.

Second, paying a friendly bet means that you are the master of your money, not the other way around. The Old Testament calls love of money idolatry; the New Testament calls it the root of all evil. Both adages are true in our time, from Wall Street and Las Vegas excesses to our own examinations of conscience. One of the hardest things about paying a losing bet is that you have to part with money — and get nothing but humiliation in return. When you pay it anyway, because it’s the right thing to do, you are on your way to being a man, unwilling to be cowed by the dollar’s unholy hold on you. (If you bet so much that paying it will affect your livelihood, that’s a different matter: In that case, the bet itself was a sin because of the excessive obligation it has put you under.)

A third way that paying a losing personal bet makes you a man is the most significant, I think. It strengthens your courage for the truth.

I have always tried to teach my children to say seven tough words: “You were right and I was wrong.” After you have insisted on a point and have discovered that you were mistaken, you just want to change the subject and forget about it. But being able to actually say those seven words is powerful.
If you are willing to be wrong when the truth is embarrassing, you will be able to defend what is right when the truth is unpopular.

So, thanks for the note, my friend, and thanks for the check. I don’t think I’ll cash it, though. I think I’ll frame it. The lesson it teaches is worth way more than $50.