Pessimist’s Dilemma


Today we’re going back to Reality. So shut up and listen.

“Were there any problems on the way here?” Lolly asked.

I don’t pretend to misunderstand. “Nah, Mum and I didn’t talk much,” I said.

“Fair enough.” I walked into the office and barely stopped myself from flinching when I saw him in the chair.


I grimaced at him before sitting down. “We’re not doing this again,” I said under my breath.

“What? I promise I’ll be good, every now and then.”

“So how was work?” Lolly questioned.

“It’s okay…” I said. “I’m not eating though.”


“Yeah…I’ve just been stressing out about stuff the past week. I think that’s what’s been causing it.”

“How’d you figure that?”

“Well, my anxiety’s been acting up more recently, and that’s when I’ve had trouble eating. It’s probably connected.”

“Do you know how that works? Why people with anxiety start having trouble eating?”

“Actually no. How?”

“You know the ‘flight or fight response’?” Lolly questioned. “Well, when that happens, your body prepares itself to do one of those two. Meaning blood usually goes to the areas responsible for carrying out those actions.”

“Okay…so what?”

“When you’re anxious, your body automatically goes into ‘fight or flight mode’,” she explained. “And when that happens, hunger becomes less of a priority, so your body ignores and even repels that sensation, so that more focus goes into the ‘fight and flight response’.”

“I think I understand now,” I said. “It’s kind of like with exercising, how blood goes to the muscles which do the work. That’s also why your fingers are cold after running.”

“You see? It’s simple when you think about it,” Lolly explained. “Now, you’ve been stressing this past week. Why?”

Yayyy, the fun part. Daniel began making kissing sounds. Shush, you. “I’ve just been worried about work,” I told Lolly. “It’s just been me worrying about what’s going to happen if I screw up.”

“What exactly does ‘screw up’ mean?”

She always makes me explain this stuff. I elaborated. “If I don’t hand in stuff on time, it’s going to have more negative repercussions than if I don’t hand in stuff at school. It’s a magazine, deadlines have to be kept. See?”

“I understand. But that’s not going to happen if you think that that’s not going to happen.”

“Yeah, well, my mind doesn’t work that way.”

“Well, that’s one of the practises of CBT. You learn how to avoid thinking in such a way, and stop you from worrying.”

“I know…I want to think that way, but…”

“It doesn’t come easy, I know. Still.”

“…have you heard of the prisoners dilemma?” I asked Lolly.

“…no. What is it?”

“It’s just a philosophical exercise. Say there’s two prisoners. Apple and Banana.”

“Apple and Banana?” Daniel snorted.

“Roll with it,” I told him aloud. “They’ve committed a crime, and they’re both arrested and put into separate cells. There’s no way they can communicate with each other, so rule out that possibility. Anyway, a detective comes in and talks to both of them separately about their options.

“He says, ‘Listen here, even if neither of you confess, we’ve still got enough evidence to put you both away for two years. You’re going to jail no matter what. But we can make a deal. All we want is a confession, it doesn’t matter who from. If you rat out your partner, you’re only going to have to do one year in jail. Of course, that means that they’re going to have to serve fifteen years time. But if you don’t confess, and he does, then it’s you who is going to be stuck in jail for fifteen years, while he’s out after just one. Now, you’re probably thinking, what if we both confess? Well, I can knock some time off both your sentences for confessing, but you’ll still go to jail for confessing.’ Get all that?”

“…a little bit?” Lolly says weakly.

“I’ll draw a diagram,” I said. I took out some pens and made a little table on the whiteboard.

“Easier now?”

“Yeah. So what’s that got to do with thinking positively?”

“Which solution would be the most optimistic outcome?”

“…that would be the one where you trust each other. You don’t have to live with the guilt of ratting out your partner, and you can spend two years in jail knowing that at least your trust in him wasn’t misplaced. Unless you’ve got no qualms about ratting out your partner.”

“Nah, you’re right. That’s the best situation, when you can trust eachother enough to stay silent. Now, which is the worst outcome?”

“…I’m starting to see what you’re getting at,” Lolly told me. “You’re saying that if you trust your partner, there’s a chance that they’ll rat you out, and you’ll have to be in jail for fifteen years. And that, for you at least, would be the worst outcome.”

“No, it’s the worst outcome period,” I insisted. “It’s fifteen years in a hellhole, and you’ll spend that time knowing that your partner was the one who sent you there.”

“You’re right. So what point are you trying to make?”

“I’ll adjust the graph a little bit.” I took the pens again and rubbed out a few words and added in new phrases.

“When you look at the diagram, thinking negatively is a much safer option than thinking positively. Though it would be great to believe that everything is going to go right, when you look at the potential outcomes, it’s not the most rational choice,” I clarified. “Preparing yourself in case the bad luck does come about means that there’s fewer consequences.”

“How so? The bad luck has still happened. The same event has happened. How does already anticipating that it’s going to happen make it better?” Lolly questioned.

“Because you have time to prepare yourself,” I told her. “Things are easier to stand when you’re already anticipating them. In the Prisoners Dilemma, if you assume the worst case scenario, you’re at least going to have less negative repercussions than if you chose to believe in the best case scenario.”

“Do you really think that?”

“Yes,” I confirmed.

“Still, I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with thinking that the positive could happen.”

“I never said there was,” I said. “The Prisoner’s Dilemma isn’t about looking at just one side of the spectrum; you can assume that there’s an equal chance of something positive and something negative happening. It’s more about preparing yourself for the negative outcomes, not disregarding the chance of something positive coming about.”

“I’m curious about one thing,” Lolly said suddenly. “In the Prisoners Dilemma, you get the least amount of time if you think negatively and the positive happens. Does that relate to real life for you?”

“Yeah, I think so. I reckon good things are even better when you least expect them.”

“As opposed to expecting good things all the time?”

“Of course.”

“So that’s your outlook then,” Lolly fixed her glasses. “What are you really worried about here?”

“Huh?” This was such a change from the philosophical discussion we were just having that I had to rewind for a moment.

“I mean, what is this ‘bad luck’ that you are preparing yourself for?”

“Well, that I don’t hand in assignments on time.”

“Or are you afraid of what will happen if you don’t hand in assignments on time?”

“…yeah. That.”

“And what will happen?”

“…they’ll yell at me. Or fire me….mainly yelling.”

“What do you associate with yelling then?” Lolly questioned. “Why is it hard for you if someone yells?”

“…I don’t-”

“Because it means they’re angry,” Daniel interjected. “And you automatically think that it means that they’re angry with you.” I stared at him. “It’s true. You’re a people pleaser, Miss Madigan, and when people you care about to some degree are upset, you blame yourself.”

I looked up to see Lolly looking at me expectantly. “Sorry, I just blanked out a bit,” I said.

“Daniel’s there, isn’t he?” she said flatly.


“What was he saying?”

“…things considering my situation with yelling.”

“…which is?”

“…when people yell at me, it means they’re angry. Which means I’ve fucked up and made them that way,” I admitted. “It’s…completely stupid and I hate myself for it, but yeah. That’s what it feels like for me.”

Daniel smiled at me, and I was relieved to see no malice in his eyes. “Yeah…I learned that eventually. It’s not stupidity Cat. Personally I think it’s more of a habit you’ve developed.”

Doesn’t stop it from being ridiculous.

Lolly agreed with Daniel. “Cat, you’re only seventeen.”

“…yeah.” I cracked a smile. “Yet I’m meant to have my whole career mapped out by now, according to school.”

She laughed. “School is stupid.”

“Yeah. Little bit.”

“Will you be okay for the next two weeks?” she asked. “I mean, if something happens, you know what to do, right?”

“Yeah, we’ve been over this. Get backup and if that fails, call ART.”

“Also, I have something for you to look at,” Lolly added, handing me a document.

We talked for a bit longer before we all headed out to meet my mother. Daniel was quiet on the way home. He never talked in front of my mother. Finally, as we found the safety of my room, he broke his silence. “You lied.”


“Work isn’t what is worrying you. It’s him, isn’t it?” I looked at Daniel in silence. “You both agreed that you didn’t want to be in a relationship. Not unless you were sure it would work out.” I nodded once. “This, Cat Madigan, is not a good alternative. Especially for you.”

“Yeah, whereas it was perfectly fine with you.”

“I would’ve never hurt you. And you’re a liar if you say you believe otherwise.”

“I don’t expect anything from this,” I told him. “I’m not in the right place for a relationship, and I already know the negative repercussions of what might happen. I can take the risk.”

“You deserve better,” he said staunchly.

“Do you really believe that?”

“I do.”


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