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Seeking Compromise, Part Three: the Upsides to Downsides

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“usually when you think you’re compromising with someone else, you’re really still compromising with yourself.”

The more avid reader might have noticed two posts ago that I set an agenda around compromise, before getting waylaid by the pros and cons of optimism and cynicism. Yes I set a goal, then deferred its realisation off into the distance. See what I did there? So meta. It wasn’t deliberate.

What could this feelgood/feelshit disparity in world-views possible have to do with compromise? Well, compromise means getting away from our ideal scenarios. If optimism and pessimism establish internal order, compromise is where those values and methods meet with cold, hard circumstances. Optimists deal with compromise just as narrow-mindedly as do cynics. The optimist might strategically block out limitations and downsides, while the cynic might just as strategically rule out hope. As we explored already, both are irrational certainties, and nothing much to do with how events pan out. Very little indeed will stop us from continuing to see the world exactly as we are most comfortable with, but optimistic/pessimistic tendencies might inflect how we are forced to compromise, as we shall see.

Compromise is important here because it puts our values into action; it is the nature of Plan B, and Plan B goes to the heart of Dysatisfunctional.com. It means giving up control; working with the elements. We compromise with other people whenever we share space, time and wants. But more often—in fact, all the time—we compromise with our own competing ideas, observations, judgements and desires. It’s only a little more complicated when we have to compromise with another party, because we are slightly less in control of their competing desires than we are of our own. In any case, compromise is an inescapable predicament, for everyone, all the time. No exceptions.

We compromise over the most ordinary decisions. How much to work before our health and happiness are both shot. How much to study, before our brains melt down or our friends start to think of us as that person. How much to stop and smell the rosaries. Economically speaking, the price of ANYTHING, and I don’t just mean money. The self itself is at stake, though I mean ‘self’ almost metaphorically. The question is not, “Who do I want to be?” on a macro scale; it’s always an infinite regression of micro-decisions—compromises, that combine to make you whoever you end up ‘being’, regardless of who you’d like to be. So get it right! I’m only half-kidding—such a view puts the onus on the responsibility of our decisions more than some ever-futile self-image. Dysatisfunctional.com starts from the basis that your preferred self-image is impossible to realise, and not just because it is endlessly deferred.

A friend of mine is deciding on a wedding dress. The only one she will ever wear, with any luck. She likes several designs for different reasons. She can’t wear them all, so she has to compromise. Whatever decision she makes, she is confronted with the path not taken. If we never put those paths away, multiplied by every decision we make, our lives would be miserable. Luckily our brains conduct handy tricks on our behalf—most of the time, and some of us more than others. All the cons for the chosen dress are minimised, as are all the pros for the alternatives. The chosen dress pros are enlarged, as are the cons of the alternatives. Seamless compromise. Problem solved. If she’s aware of this operation (and she is—she told me), the resolution will depend on being able to enjoy the dilemma with a sense of playful, ironic detachment, to avoid constant second-guessing.

As for compromise = sharing with others, usually when you think you’re compromising with someone else, you’re really still compromising with yourself. This post isn’t about negotiating the best possible result for yourself, while hoodwinking the other party into believing they’ve actually done well. We might have something to say about such practices in the future. To show how compromising with others is still really about prioritising your own values, think about the start of your last relationship. Many things weren’t quite how you wanted them to be, but you were putting your most optimistic foot forward, giving their peccadillos the benefit of your actual doubt: ever running late, clothes hung up on the floor, inconsequential lies, secret-surprise smoker’s breath, chewing and talking at once, an obsessive avoidance of odd numbers, crying after orgasm, drunken violence, refusal to go see a doctor, or capricious bursts of unseemly competitiveness. Some are more endearing than others, and some less funny.

When a peccadillo first arises, you might casually tease your new flame, joke about it, or politely ignore it. All these are subtle discipline procedures. Once identified as entrenched or compulsive behaviour, peccadillos can be dealt with two different ways: zero in on each one, allowing no margin for error until your partner leaves you, citing your impossibility, OR acknowledge the theoretical existence of your own flaws, accept that theirs are part of the package, and keep rolling with the good times. This IS the more optimistic path, which doesn’t mean it is more open-minded, which in turn doesn’t rule it out as the best course of action. Classic compromise.

Your eyes might glaze over when irritating habits occur, or you conveniently find something else to do, momentarily looking in your bag for your glasses (which you are always already wearing) until the crisis passes. And, tellingly, this might well constitute your own peccadillo for your budding flame (“S/he’s great but s/he’s SOO absent-minded…”). Your chances of minimising the peccadillo itself are lower than your chances of minimising how it impacts your life, and the second course is ethically superior to the first, as well as more practical. The optimistic course here is to reduce it down or away, while the cynical course might be ironic detachment, if not a wholly sardonic (re)framing of the relationship itself. Significant compromises both; in fact a series of perpetual compromises, as you assess, recommit and devote your energies each day.

Optimists might well be bummed about this described state of affairs, and cynics gloomy minus surprise. But I say fear not! The inevitable upside of these inescapable compromises so close to our hearts, is that downsides can work in our favour, just like with my friend’s wedding dress. The critical optimist path, introduced last week, is to stay aware of the peccadillo in question, as cynics would, but in context with what you value about the relationship and the person. If the balance plays in your favour, I hope you’re satisfied, or dare I suggest—happy. If the balance tips poorly for too long, you call it a day. Optimism and cynicism matters here because your assessments depend upon your expectations and decision-making methods.

Ending a relationship, or having it ended in your face, is where critical optimism prevents eschatological hysteria or defeatist nihilism: all those peccadillos you fought down now become the excellent proof for why you’re suddenly so much better off. The operation applies no matter which side of the power imbalance you find yourself on. This explains the disjointed phenomenon so many friends and loved ones experience, when a partner or relationship goes from being championed with so much conviction, to becoming the sudden object of repulsion, exasperation, even vilification. In Freudanese, it’s textbook ‘return of the repressed’. If the reversal can’t be explained in this way, are we seriously to believe that reality was instantly so categorically turned on its head? Surely not, though I’d love to hear your alternative explanations.

Some caveats: you can only use these peccadillos to power critical optimism through this tough time, if you’re aware enough of them in the first place. This rules out unbridled optimism. Meanwhile, if you do nothing but wallow in the relationship deficits you were all too constantly aware of, those peccadillos are wasted potential. This rules out committed cynicism. Perhaps I could have explained the upsides to downsides without spending a month on optimism and cynicism and their evolved mutant hybrid, but hopefully you can now see why we went there.

In his new book The Shape of Design, and his latest round of international talks, renowned designer and author Frank Chimero advocates the long way around for creatives specifically, and perhaps indeed for life more generally, since design for him is about making decisions that bring you closer to how you want the world to be. This long way around is all about compromise, reframed as exploration, innovation, surprise, and engagement. More than design tenets, these make great self-help tenets. Harnessing the deviations and downsides of compromise is absolutely dysatisfunctional, and simultaneously, to your benefit. Even—as the last four weeks of blog posts here demonstrate—by utter, ignorant mistake.

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Seeking Compromise, Part One: optimism vs. cynicism

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“Doing whatever it takes to be perpetually motivated and optimistic is psychopathic”

The last two posts here at Dysatisfunctional.com have addressed social dysatisfunction owing to a couple of national holiday themes, but today we refocus on personal and interpersonal dysatisfunction, as we assess optimism and cynicism. I wanted to talk about compromise today, but it’s important to first look at some of the pros and cons of how we orient ourselves to an imperfect world, imperfect neighbours, and imperfect selves. The post is a day late, too, so compromise is all between the lines anyhow.

I used to have a recurring dialogue with an excellent friend of mine: he would say with a grin and maybe something stuck to his lip/face, “I’m aaall good,” “Last night was aaaall good,” “This burger is aaaaaall good,” and I would say, often without consciously deciding to, “Well… nothing is ALL good. Mostly? OK. Nearly everything? Rarely. But never ALL as in 100% good,” and make a wiping motion to help him address the facial interloper.

After all, unknown pathogens were waging biological warfare in my friend’s body as he misspoke. The night before was not good for everyone, since that girl was dancing with him at the expense of at least one disgruntled ex. It couldn’t even be all good for himself—it’s more accurate to say that the systematic demolition of neurons via alcohol and whatever else was “worth it” or otherwise worthwhile, which are totally different concepts of goodness. The burger, most definitely, cannot be all good: industrial food production in relation to human health and global ecology make that impossible—even a cow’s fart is a calculation of means and ends (usually by humans, bovine thought processes notwithstanding).

The “all good” exchange was sometimes funny, depending on how I justified my interregnum, and on how well my friend countered, but it wasn’t exactly a running joke, since neither of us was kidding. This ritualistic exchange was a fair metonym of our personalities at the time, and perhaps still is. Over time I would just have to say, “Well…” and my pal would bunch his lips and nod what was probably a mix of nominal assent for the technicality, combined with respectful disagreement with my world view and overall strategy for living.

I must admit, being optimistic really brings me down. “Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something,” they call it. And I’ve tried it—forced nights out to break the spell, cheerful dinners I had no reason to think could go well, or all my team sports/the occasional street fight. When I try unbridled optimism, something gnaws away in my sub-conscious processes, like I’ve gone on holiday with the gas element on, or forgotten to make arrangements for the plant, pet, child or parent in my care. Something that will come back to bite me. And it always does. Some of you will share this nagging wariness for unbridled optimism, while others will shake your heads and point out the folly of self-fulfilling prophecies. You latter folks will be happy to read that I share your, erm, doubts, on this point. Feeling cynical, wary, suspicious, or just plain bad has many negative health effects, beyond question, and lowers quality of life, almost by definition.

Far from arguing against these ill effects, I can only confirm that I find them… accurate. It would be easy to label cynicism then, as the poor-to-do, less successful sibling by contrast, and maybe that’s so, but first we should ask if there are any ill effects resulting from optimism. Philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s optimism argued that God necessarily created the best of all possible worlds. Our Easter post identified how faith in a benevolent universe might be irrational and plain wrong, but probably paid off in terms of physical and emotional health. So optimism’s first casualty might be the truth, if Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup thinks we can handle it.

Can you handle the truth of advertising creatives?

It seems that if we’re to assess the respective truth claims of optimism and cynicism, we should ask: is the world essentially benevolent, malignant, or a mix of good and bad? The dysatisfunctional answer has to be that things are both good and bad at once, except for when things are neither good nor bad. The empirical way to fit the world to our perceptions suggests that we might feel hopeful in positive situations, and doubtful in negative situations, but actually the reverse is more helpful: hope is needed when things are bad, while in good times we should guard against complacency. So as with faith, what is useful might not correlate to what is true, even when it brings its own self-fulfilling prophecies.

This seems cool and stupidly obvious at once

In addition, this question of utility assumes quite a lot of control over our emotions, personality and general disposition. Such ideas are the foundations of modern psychological therapy, self-help, goal-setting motivational industries, New Age faith industries, and there’s a lot of milk in these cow$. I’ll throw down on these money-changers another time. For now, while we can change much about ourselves with the right dedication, motivation, patience and practical tools, I’d like to suggest that talking ourselves into 100% optimism might not be as healthy as you’d prefer to believe.

Optimism usually entails discomfort at any threat to a sunny disposition. One way to deal with  hardship is to minimise it, or better still, pretend it does not exist. Negative effects can be contained, blamed on something unrelated, or reinterpreted in a positive light. This can keep us motivated about improvement, achievement, and pursuing some concept of good. The upsides to a train wreck: practical experience and a sense of teamwork for emergency services, personal development for everyone involved including their families and friends, a turning point for the hitherto discontented and half-arsed, inadvertent euthanasia for the already infirmed, reduction in human overpopulation problem, to name a few.

The last time you successfully transformed a potential problem into a motivational plus was probably a decent mental victory for you, but can you recall the last time you had to deal with someone else who did this? Instant nightmare. Everything shoveled under the rug; all the important stuff; all the keys to problem-solving, including the primary acknowledgement of the problem itself. Doing whatever it takes to be perpetually motivated and optimistic is psychopathic, and your loved ones will eventually notice. Optimism can create a deep interpersonal discord, a social alienation the optimist might never be aware of. And even if they were aware, by virtue of optimistic procedures, they wouldn’t be, and this is what makes it completely insane.

None of us know what we don’t know—Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “unknown unknowns,” but some of us are trying harder than others. It’s all about degree, to be fair, but we all know people for whom this kind of minimisation or elision is their signature go-to move. These people are high-performance authors of widespread dysatisfunction, mobile human catastrophe volcanoes. Don’t believe the sheen of functionality, the good night’s sleep, the ability to compartmentalise any problem—it only appears handy in the beginning, or in war…

Optimism meets amorality: bad combination

I don’t care if optimists are wrong; doesn’t faze me. The systematic denial and minimisation of all the world’s problems, on the other hand, is a terror to be fought tooth and claw. Even for more moderate optimists, we know that folks can identify all sorts of problems in the world, their relationships, even themselves, and yet the hardest faults to see are the biggest and gnarliest and most impactful of them all. This is where cynicism, suspicion and a critical eye become virtuous. Earlier, I said cynicism lowers quality of life almost by definition. Almost, because who said quality of life should be solely defined by positive experiences? Tragedy is meaningful, educational and redemptive, and for these reasons should not be minimised or elided. The critical perspective that accompanies the cynic is valuable when tempered, and that caveat should not be… minimised.

Next week we’ll  start with cynicism and move toward compromise, as we look at the upsides to downsides, fun break-up inversions, some shit about Buddhism, and introduce Dysatisfunctional.com’s mutant hybrid: critical optimism.

Until then, if you can’t be good, be well.