The drainer is a terrorist, holding someone hostage in conversation.
It is an unfortunate reality that when you meet new people, there are few perceptible signs before speaking to them that they are a drainer. Maybe you saw people they were talking to eye off the exit, or observed exasperated shrugs of the shoulders, perhaps you overheard others make numerous ‘anyways’ and ‘that’s good’ comments as they tried to close up the conversation. The drainer, for lack of better phrasing, just doesn’t know when to shut up.
They will just go on and on about a particular topic with apparent disregard for how interested you appear (or internally are). They certainly believe in what they are saying and unfortunately believe enthusiasm can be a substitute for skill. They really do think that vaccines kill, or truly believe that the climate emergency is just an overreaction. Whether they are pulling at whatever thoughts first float to the surface, or (as they see it) citing coherent arguments, stating facts, and presenting data, what makes them a drainer – that is, a drain on your very energy to continue speaking to them – is that they pay no attention to you.
Drainers, unfortunately, tend to be better at talking at people rather than with them. In the process, they undermine the most basic tenet of communication: to commune; to join and create something together. The drainer is so concerned with being heard they forget to listen.
One comes upon a sneaking suspicion that drainers aren’t really being honest with us or themselves. They are filled with such self-righteous anger at vaccine mandates or protestors fighting climate change. But the venom running through their incessant monologing about why this is ridiculous, or these people are fools, suggests that the problem might be more personal. Perhaps a vaccine mandate seems authoritarian, the same kind of invasive authority they were subjected to in childhood; they were always victimised, and rarely had a say in how they wanted to live, and maybe (and perhaps this is the real issue) they still don’t. Maybe they hate people fussing about the climate catastrophe because they have been poor, unemployed, broken and belittled, but nobody ever gave a damn about them; their problems are real while the climate problem is so abstract. Once again, they have been forgotten, and it makes them furious. The drainer (as they so often are), is angry, but because they don’t properly locate or expand on the sources of their own anger, they come across terribly boring, and even a bit neurotic. The problem isn’t that we want to hear less, rather, we want to hear more; less about the world, and more about them.
A good partner in conversation, therefore, will try their best to draw the conversation from the broader, more abstract and impersonal; into the more concise, specific and personal; understanding that beneath the rage about vaccines and environmental protestors, there was a personal story waiting to be told. A story, perhaps, that would be far more interesting and significantly less draining.
In seeing the personal beneath the impersonal, what people have to say becomes significantly less draining. When someone says vaccine mandates are a sign of fascism or that the environmental movement threatens the economic system, we won’t be as infuriated or even triggered, because we will understand where that person is coming from and just how much their personal experiences inform their present understanding, even if they might not realise it themselves.
Drainers are exclusively concerned with themselves. This comes back to the point about communing. Seeing very little interest in what you have to say unless it supports their point, the drainer is entropic, sucking the energy from conversation. At the heart of it, the drainer has an ardent desire to be heard. What we could do is hear them, or, at least, the parts of themselves that they may not be able to hear themselves. We could, as good participants in conversation, try to draw out the personal beneath the impersonal, and in the process, commune in a way that is gratifyingly more real, more intimate, and less draining in the process.
The world, as many of us are well aware, is in a state of utter chaos. We can easily imagine the Byzantines having a similar conversation as the Visigoths sacked Rome, or Aztec citizens observing to each other as the Conquistadors pillaged Tenochtitlan. This has likely been the conversation held by all people throughout all of recorded history. Yet, what makes this particular observation so salient, is the extensive and intensive creep of this chaos throughout almost all of our lives. Climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, environmental degradation, corporate control; we are mired in problems with seemingly no way out.
The common complaint when anybody says that there is something wrong with this or that is ‘what shall we do about it’? We demand answers. Or, more to the point, we demand someone to tell us what to do.
Maybe not an answer, but here is a suggestion.
When almost every single realm of life has become an appendage of the very chaos we seek to dispel, the single radical act left to any of us is simply…to do nothing.
But this is a very peculiar type of nothingness. This is not nothing as inertia or mechanical repetition, but ‘nothing’ as a severe and (as much as we can) complete break from the system of chaos as it stands that we support with the small choices we make every day.
There are so many types of nothing we could engage in. A good one for starters is, turn off the TV (and stop letting corporate advisors tell you how to think). After that, you can stop purchasing new phones and new clothes and new toys every week (and contributing to the pollution of the planet). You can even stop buying plastic (and adding to the poisoning of animals and ecosystems).
Doing nothing is not so much doing nothing as it is stopping what you are currently doing; in doing so, you open up a negative space of freedom where finally something new can actually appear. Geoffrey Bezos would go broke if we stopped purchasing things off Amazon, and the Earth would stand a better chance of surviving if we stopped using plastic. The negative field is ripe with possibilities. Instead of purchasing all your food from stores you could try your hand at growing something on your own; no longer using plastic will encourage you to consume differently and arguably, more ethically.
The single radical act left to us in a world that has been almost complete enlisted into the service of chaos is to do nothing. The withdrawal of support for a system that is utterly chaotic is perhaps the most radical thing we can do. The power in this is not that it is a guide or blueprint for what comes after. Nobody can predict that. But, it opens up a space where imagining and perhaps implementing a different, less chaotic world becomes possible.
There are people in our lives whom we remain friends with for no other apparent reason than we have been friends with them for such a long time. They have woven the inextricable threads of friendship throughout time; pulling at those threads could result in the entire tapestry falling apart.
The tone might suggest that we remain intimate with old friends for the pragmatic (and very unfriendly) reason that it would simply be too difficult or uncomfortable to end the relationship now after considering how far you have grown apart.
But there is another reason for keeping contact with old friends. They grant us a vantage point into a version of ourselves that we no longer are. Within the friendship is a time capsule of memories that reveal a life lived and a vista of the previous person we were.
Again, this sounds like keeping someone around because of the memories we shared and not because of genuine friendly love. And, to an extent, this retort is correct, yet there is value in being able to reminisce, not only because it reveals who you used to be, but because it also reveals the reason you became (and remain) friends in the first place.
It can be a scary prospect to tell someone that despite all the good times (and bad) you shared, you are no longer compatible. But you live, not for others, but for yourself. If you cannot be true to your feelings, the friendship disintegrates into a farce of false feelings and manufactured kindness. It will have all the embellishments of friendship without any of the substance. It is far kinder and ironically, more friendly, to tell someone it is over than to pretend that it isn’t.
There comes a time where we must take stock of our own lives; ponder, consider and reflect on who we were and who we now are. People are not tools; one should not simply have a friend because they are useful or gratifying. We grow and we change; as do others. Much like our wardrobe or study, our friendships should be free of clutter and unnecessary items. Old friendships can be beautiful recordings of who we were and instructions on how we can be better in the future; but they can also be sources of conflict, dismay and disappointment. It is up to us to decide and act accordingly.
From a very young age, we adopt what can be called a comparative mindset. As children, we compare our grades with our classmates, or compare our parents’ treatment with our siblings. In adulthood, we define our sense of wealth with those around us, from the cars we drive to the clothes we wear; or, we understand how well we are doing in life with our peers. The implicit problem in all this, which is by no means a revelation, is that we fail to look at ourselves as we are. We become, in the words of Krishnamurti, ‘second hand people’.
David Bohm grasps the essential problem in his insightful collection of essays titled On Dialogue. Comparison does not just change what we think, but also how we think. If the content of thought is explicit,then its structure is implicit. A metaphorical equivalent would be the difference between the water and the current of a stream. Water is the content, but the current is the structure, always guiding and shaping the content, yet operating unseen. In seeing how difficult it is to even think about life except through comparison, we see the extent of how the implicit structure of thought operates. For instance, if we cannot think about what it means to be successful, to be rich, to be smart, or to be strong without comparing it to other people, it gives us an indication of just how conditioned our thinking is.
The danger of thought structured by comparative thinking is that your personality becomes second-hand (I am smart because he is dumb, I am happy because my car is more expensive than his); experiences become echoes (the sunrise yesterday was more vibrant, the rain last night was more soothing); and people lose their dignity (you are dumb because I am smarter, you are unworthy because we were both born poor but I became rich). In short, life becomes derivative, experiences become shadows, and people become insubstantial.
This comparative mindset empties the world of so much joy. ‘You say this is better than that; you compare yourself with somebody who is more beautiful, who is more clever’, writes Krishnamurti in his altogether heartfelt and moving collection of talks On Love & Loneliness.
Comparative judgment makes the mind dull; it does not sharpen the mind, it does not make the mind comprehensive, inclusive, because, when you are all the time comparing, what has happened? You see the sunset, and you immediately compare that sunset with the previous sunset.
When we compare, we do not see the utter uniqueness and singularity of life. By comparing, we dull the vitality of experiences by reducing it as another number in a sequence.
When you are comparing, you are really not looking at the sunset which is there, but you are looking at it in order to compare it with something else. So comparison prevents you from looking fully.
By comparing, we are not looking fully because we only see something in relation to something else. Everything becomes an echo, a reflection, or a repetition.
To really look at the sunset, there must be no comparison; to really look at you, I must not compare you with someone else.
This is the unparalleled majesty of love. When we truly love someone, we do not see them in comparison with other people. This is why the disgruntled lovers’ remark that they are not as beautiful as previous partners, or they are not smart or rich enough entirely misses the point. In love, there is no comparison. The beloved is uniquely, irreducibly themselves. To see with lovers’ eyes is to see freshly, to see without comparison. As Krishnamurti says, ‘when I look at you without comparing, I am only concerned with you, not with someone else’. In this radical act, dignity is restored.
The inherent danger in comparison is that it stops us from seeing things for what they are, whether it be a sunset, a partner, or even ourselves. After a lifetime of conditioning it is hard to think differently, but if we are to see things justly and accord the respect each moment deserves, we must look anew, with fresh eyes, and see things for what they are on their own terms, and not in comparison with something else.
The paradox of melancholy lies in how the seeds of sadness sit latent (and ever ready to germinate) within happiness. Just as life implies death and pleasure implies pain, happiness implies sadness. It is the foresight that this momentary (and precarious) lofty feeling will soon (all too soon) descend back to the pits of despair which constitutes a feeling of melancholy.
While basically anything can prompt melancholy, one particular situation will always provide fertile soil for this most paradoxical of feeling: parties.
You might have been a bit hesitant to go, but after some careful and considered cajoling by friends, they convinced you to come along to the party. As the music pumps and the drinks are poured, you find yourself (surprisingly) having quite a good time. But then, you are suddenly struck by a feeling, perhaps the same feeling that caused your anxiety about going to the party in the first place. You begin feeling melancholic.
Although you are now surrounded by friends and immersed in the bonhomie of the party, you realise just how joyless and lonely your day to day existence is. You begin to see that while you’re having fun tonight; the other 99% of your week is devoted to mind-numbing drudgery and minutia. This moment is effervescent, bubbly, but soon to pop (any moment now) and all that will remain are the still waters of everyday life.
You want to feel good like this all the time, but you know you can’t. The very knowledge of your somewhat miserable life outside of the party is the very thing stopping you from enjoying the party. So, not only do you feel melancholic, but (adding insult to injury) you begin feeling disappointed in yourself, because you now have a slither of happiness within your grasp that only you are stopping yourself from enjoying.
There is another type of melancholy that typically arises at parties. If the first is melancholy because life beyond the party is seen as lacking, the second type arises when life within the party is seen as lacking.
At the party (but one can easily substitute a bar, club, pub or festival), one will be surrounded by all types of people having a stupendous time. The lights are low, alcohol is being passed freely; and banter and laughter fill the room.
The idea of sociability at work here is that people relate to each other best when they are close together, in a good mood, and maybe, just a little bit drunk. But the melancholic sees through this pretence. Or rather, they see artifice and the beauty of constructed situations as pretence, as fakery and mimicry. The cheeriness and superficial banter are not seen as invitations to pretend – in the tradition of the Italian carnivale – but rather, are seen as indications of the emptiness that lies within most social occasions. The melancholic – perhaps more than other people – sees that real connection requires more than false smile and the conscious effort to be funny and friendly.
The melancholic grasps in the joyful atmosphere of parties what is truly lacking: intimacy. Melancholy, if anything, is moral witnessing to the disparity between how things are, and how we would like them to be.
While the world around us emphasises buoyancy and joyfulness, melancholy alerts us to the inescapable fact that life is inextricably entwined with pain, suffering, and loneliness.
Melancholy, viewed in a more philosophical light, is not a problem at all; for melancholy is at its heart a realisation, a revelation, and a prompt from the deep recesses of our soul to deal with the way we are living. It is a call from the beyond to take stock of our life, and a suggestion to begin living it differently.
It is both a blessing and a curse that we are not privy to the private tortures, turmoils and torments which afflict the souls of those we pass by. We have enough problems of our own that we would hardly be able to shoulder the burdens of others. However, while this fact frees us, it also puts us in an incredibly ambiguous position because it means we do not know just how close someone is to jumping off the metaphorical (or literal) edge.
We should all be a little nicer because we simply have no way of knowing what those around us are going through. The telemarketer who calls at irritating hours might just have been abused by the previous ten people who answered; but they are only trying to feed their children. The teenager who says, yet again on a hot day, that the ice-cream machine at McDonald’s is not working, was herself just screamed at by the previous ten customers and her parents are currently contemplating divorce. Your colleague who was extremely curt and made you feel like an imbecile has just lost her father. If only we knew these private tortures, we would be a little more understanding and much less likely to react in irritation or frustration.
We should, therefore, be charitable in our interpretations when people are rude to us or fail to give us what we want. There is always a reason. We should be able to look back at times where we felt misunderstood: if only they knew what we were going through, they would understand why we were so rude or unfair in our responses or reactions. What we might need is just a healthy dose of imagination.
Those who are rude suffer from a severe under-appreciation of just how powerful they are. They suffer from a misunderstanding of just how much of an impact their words and actions have on those around them. They might think that they themselves are quite deplorable and pathetic while those around them are so strong and powerful, so their words cannot possibly have any effect on them; but they do.
We simply do not know what anyone is going through at any moment. Rather than giving us license to speak and act however we want, this should prompt us to be more cautious and respectful to those around us and to treat them with the same consideration we hope, in our own moments of weakness or strife, they would treat us.
You might not be able to be great, but you can be good; you may not be able to save everyone, but you can save yourself. This is the central message found at the end of Voltaire’s inspired 1759 text Candide.
It is not for nothing that the subtitle of this work was Or, Optimism, because Voltaire was seeking to undermine the conviction – prevalent at his time, but no less so today – that things can ever be perfect. The world, like the humans who inhabit it, will always be absurd, contradictory, flawed and messy; the best we can hope for is to try to live well and be good, however insignificant our acts may be.
While in Constantinople, the three protagonists of the book (Pangloss, Candide, and Martin) hear that two Viziers and the Mufti had been strangled and several of their friends had been impaled. As they leave the court, they come across an old farmer sitting under an Orange tree near his farm.
Pangloss, who was as inquisitive as he was argumentative, asked the old man what was the name of the strangled Mufti.
“I do not know,” answered the worthy man, “and I have not known the name of any Mufti, nor of any Vizier. I am entirely ignorant of the event you mention; I presume in general that they who meddle with the administration of public affairs die sometimes miserably, and that they deserve it; but I never trouble my head about what is transacting at Constantinople; I content myself with sending there for sale the fruits of the garden which I cultivate.”
The old farmer understood a noble truth: his life was not grand, but its simplicity taught him to be humble; he was not in a position of power, but this protected him from vice and wickedness; he was not wealthy, but his twenty acres which he worked protected him from want. The farmer did not try to change the world around him, he merely tried to find a place for himself in the world as it was; and for that he achieved peace and protection ‘from three great evils – weariness, vice, and want’.
Unlike the garden I cultivate with care and affection, Voltaire was being more metaphorical when he said ‘we must cultivate our own garden’. In one sense, he was saying that we must keep ourselves busy. ‘Idle hands do the devil’s work’. But, he was also sharing with us his belief that we need to keep a separation between ourselves and the world. We must be careful not to get too caught up in the trials and tribulations of what is going on around us because, most likely, there is nothing we will be able to do to change it. If we pin our thoughts according to public opinion and feelings upon what is going on in the world, we will be liable to develop a schizophrenic mind and to cry constantly.
Voltaire was not telling us to be pessimistic or to give up, but instead, to looks at the world clearly and with good judgement, and be optimistic about the things you can change, and to not be caught up in the things you can’t.
We lash out because we haven’t been listened to, not because we’ve been listened to too much.
At the end of the day, sometimes what we really need is not for someone to agree with us, or to give us advice, but simply to hear us; to validate our feelings, to recognise our inner turmoil, and to say in the glimmer in their eye or the slight curl of their lips, that they hear us; we want to be told what we feel, is real.
Often (and unfortunately, too often), when we pour our hearts out to someone, they miss the point. We may be complaining about how hard we are finding life, and they respond by telling us just how good we have it. Or, we may be relaying an inner turmoil we are experiencing, and they try to give us advice on how to deal with it. That is all well and good; it often comes from a place of love. But, sometimes what we really need, the only thing we need, is for our feelings to be recognised, and through this, for someone to agree that what we feel is real.
This is part of the power of a good psychologist or friend. They won’t tell us what we should do, but rather, will listen and affirm what we are feeling. They will tell us, without passing judgement or providing advice, that how we feel is indeed valid. Sometimes, that’s all we need: someone outside of ourselves to say that it really is understandable why we feel the way we do.
The hidden danger in feelings that go unrecognised is they do not go away. They may fade from conscious perception, but do not disappear. They leave traces, scars on the psyche that must be attended to if they are to properly heal. Sometimes people cannot do this for themselves, and having someone else validate and accept certain feelings and thoughts is a safe and reassuring way to let them come to the surface, be dealt with, and ultimately, allow the process of healing to begin.
At the heart of really hearing someone is: validation, compassion and acceptance; sometimes, the very things the speaker cannot grant themselves. This ‘emotional nectar’, as Allain De Botton calls it, is crucial in affirming thoughts and feelings that someone may be too meek or unwilling to accept themselves. When we are falling apart and life becomes too much, sometimes the most powerful remedy is simply another person who can look you in the eyes and say (with words or without them) ‘I hear you’ and give you a big hug.
Some winning phrases might include:
- Wow, the way [x] made you felt must have been really…
- It must feel terrible the way that…
- That sounds really rough. What do you think you should do?
- I can hear how you’re feeling, you must want to…
- Are you feeling really…
- I understand how you feel, if [x] happened to me I would…
These simple reflective sentences don’t diminish or ignore what is said. They are not empty verbal cues. They are, rather, prompts to help recognise and validate feelings and encourage their elaboration; that is, to create a space where the person speaking, feels like they can keep talking because they are finally being heard. And at the end of the day, maybe that is all we really need.