[content warning: This blog post is intended to evoke existential horror. Readers who struggle with scrupulosity or existential horror may wish to skip this post, or read it when they’re in a generally good frame of mind.]
[attention conservation notice: This blog post comes from a transhumanist, utilitarian, and pro-animal-rights perspective. Readers who do not share these assumptions may find the post ineffective.]
Every time this gif blinks, a person dies.
Blink. A three-year-old will never play with his dolls again. Blink. A retiree’s last poem will never be finished. Blink. A woman will never be able to meet her grandchildren. Blink. A man dies, under the impression that it is 1930 and he is only twenty years old. Blink. A woman dies rescuing her children from a fire. Blink. Elsewhere in the world, the children burn to death.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
Each one a person just like you– a person who loved, who hated, who grieved, who experienced joy, who felt the warmth of the sun on their skin and the cool taste of water when you’re really thirsty. Each gone in less time than it takes to read this sentence.
Your mind will flinch away from this. Gently bring it back.
A whole bunch of rationalizations may spring up inside your head: that death is what gives life meaning, or that without death society would never progress, or that immortals would be forever bored. Release them. You don’t have to twist your mind into thinking that death is okay. It is just bad. Everyone who is alive right now will die; and it is just as bad staggered as it would be happening all at once.
Notice what’s happening in your body right now– the feeling of your feet in your shoes, the breeze on your hands, your heart beating. You may notice the physical sensations associated with some emotions. That’s okay. When you’re ready, gently bring your attention to what’s going on in your mind right now.
You may feel sadness or grief or anger or despair or guilt. That’s okay. Let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling. Don’t flinch away. Don’t try to suppress your feelings. Don’t beat yourself up about what you feel or don’t feel. Just notice what you’re feeling.
If you feel angry: why? What is there to be angry at? There is no person who decided that things ought to be this way; this is just how the inexorable laws of the universe work themselves out. The universe does not love us or hate us; it is indifferent. There is not some grand cosmic contract of fairness that the universe is violating; fairness exists only inside the human mind, and the pitiless arrangements of electrons and protons have no duty to obey it.
If you feel guilt: why? You have no power to prevent those deaths. If you could flick a switch and cause them to live, then clearly you would be doing something wrong; but the effort to cure death will involve thousands of people working across dozens of fields, and it may not be possible at all. Right now, with our technology, there is nothing we can do. Even the hope of cryonics is thin.
And yet: bad things do not stop being bad just because we cannot fix them. Death is bad, and we cannot fix it; the one doesn’t make the other false.
If you despair: remember that true things do not stop being true just because you don’t think about them. Those people were always dying, even when you weren’t staring at the blinking gif. All the things that made your life worthwhile before– interesting work, friends who love you, the taste of cake– are still there. The evil that exists in the world doesn’t invalidate the good. But the good doesn’t invalidate the evil, either.
If you notice you are breathing fast, breathe more slowly. If you are frowning, smile. If your hands have clenched into fists, unclench them. If your muscles are tense, make the effort to relax.
Now, if you are an animal person, imagine some beloved animal: your dog, your cat, your snake. Really think about the love you feel for them: the way they greet you when you come home, comfort you when you are sad, or wake you up at 5 am when they’re feeling hungry. If you are not an animal person, you will have to stretch your empathy farther.
Imagine your animal on the run for his life, desperately fleeing and tremendously afraid; then imagine their pain as they lose and their guts spill out over the ground, their heart still beating. Imagine them limping with a broken leg that will never be treated or sick with worms that will never be cured. Imagine them curled up on the ground, whimpering with hunger, because the winter was bad and as hard as they try they will never be able to find food.
Again, rationalizations will rush in. You may think of the beauty of the wild, or of Mother Earth who loves all her creatures, or of the balance of nature in which all these have their place. These are lies made up by the Romantics and the Lion King. It is bad when animals suffer; it is bad when your pet dog suffers, and it is still bad when a wild deer suffers.
You may think that we cannot do anything about wild animal suffering. This is true. Wild animal suffering is, if possible, a problem even more intractable than death; if we tried to intervene to prevent wild animal suffering, we may cause damage to the biosphere that causes more suffering and (depending on the scale of the project) an end to life itself. But problems are still bad when we cannot fix them.
It is okay to feel rage, sorrow, guilt. Just feel what you feel, don’t rationalize, and don’t flinch away.
Relax your hands. Untense your muscles. Breathe.
At first this will hurt quite a lot. This is normal. But if you keep doing it– if you stare unflinchingly at the void– eventually you will come to a sense of acceptance, of peace, even of relief. You will not be able to comprehend the scale of human suffering, of wild animal suffering, of death. But you do not have to pretend it does not exist. It will not destroy you. And it is always easier to look your problems square in the face than to pretend that they don’t exist at all.
If you will, imagine a group of nine people: perhaps a group of your closest friends, or your immediate family. One of them will not have enough to eat; imagine their hunger pangs. Two will live in homes that don’t protect them from the weather; imagine how they shiver. One will not have access to safe water. Three do not have access to good sanitation. One will not be able to read. One– assuming they all lived to the age of 15, which is hardly guaranteed– won’t live to see sixty.
Now, repeat what you did last time. Don’t flinch away. Don’t rationalize. Notice what you are feeling in your body. Breathe. Notice your emotions. Don’t tense your muscles. Allow yourself to feel what you are feeling, whether it is anger or guilt or sadness.
This is practice holding two things in the mind at once. Think, also, about the progress we’ve made:
Between 1990 and 2002 average overall incomes increased by approximately 21 percent. The number of people in extreme poverty declined by an estimated 130 million. Child mortality rates fell from 103 deaths per 1,000 live births a year to 88. Life expectancy rose from 63 years to nearly 65 years. An additional 8 percent of the developing world’s people received access to water. And an additional 15 percent acquired access to improved sanitation services.
If you wish, think of those numbers as people: one of your friends has access to water; one of your friends has good sanitation. The suffering in the world is enormously, unimaginably large; but it used to be even more enormously, unimaginably large than it is right now. Within my lifetime, the world has become a better place.
It didn’t happen because people ignored poverty or pretended it didn’t exist. It happened because people were like “look at this unimaginable suffering in the world!” and then said to themselves “I am going to fix it.”
H P Lovecraft was right about one thing: the world is merciless and pitiless; it is not cruel only because cruelty implies malice, a desire to hurt, and the universe hurts us out of its profound indifference. There is no term for our pain in the laws of physics. Our pain is just the inevitable outcome of molecule combining with molecule, atom bashing against atom.
H P Lovecraft was wrong about another thing: that we would go mad from the revelation. Nothing is scarier. When you avoid, when you deny, the problem seems like the worst thing in the world. If we look the problem square in the face, if we don’t flinch, if we make an effort to think about the scale of the problem… well, we will grieve, and we will mourn, and then we will pick up our loads and we will work.