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Debbie Downer comes to town

As a real-life Debbie Downer, I can often alienate friends and fam and find myself alone, and, what’s worse, other people hurt or sad.

I wonder what is a serious way to approach this constructively?

People wanna be happy (which is legit) and a common way for them to attempt happiness is ignorance and compartmentalization. Philosophical pessimists call this technique “isolation” (not just as in “isolate the Debbie Downers away from your life” but even “a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling”).

It’s one of four techniques they’ve identified, along with anchoring, distracting, and sublimation. I’ve argued in the past that zen enlightenment is a fifth way; there is a slight bit of overlap but there’s also overlap between those other four. Distracting yourself with Disney Land, like Debbie’s family does in the TV show, is a way to isolate away bad thoughts, for example.

Sublimation, which is what Debbie Downer is doing (“transforming the pain of living into valuable experiences”), can be very effective but it really clashes with the isolation approach.

But it’s not as if she is being very constructive, and she has weird timing. She’s expressing her pain in order to transform and validate it, and she is very bad at choosing the right moment to do that; she isn’t actually addressing any of the problems in a solution-oriented way.

How can we make room for constructive talk about difficult topics?

If everyone had kept on iso-lalala-ting we would still be smoking in kindergarten and spraying with freons and storing dates with YY-MM-DD. Real change can happen and real change requires real talk.

That’s the dialectic required here. How can we be wide awake while still enjoying the good moments when we have them?

Cicero, in De finibus bonorum et malorum, writes:

But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of reprobating pleasure and extolling pain arose. To do so, I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?

On the other hand, we denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue; and equal blame belongs to those who fail in their duty through weakness of will, which is the same as saying through shrinking from toil and pain. These cases are perfectly simple and easy to distinguish. In a free hour, when our power of choice is untrammeled and when nothing prevents our being able to do what we like best, every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain avoided. But in certain circumstances and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted. The wise man therefore always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects pleasures to secure other greater pleasures, or else he endures pains to avoid worse pains.

Enjoy life, spread a little happiness as you go by, choose your battles, find the right time & place for conversations & dialogue, but don’t flinch from real talk when that’s what’s needed.