[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.
Thanks for this. It’s one of the reasons that I have little patience for arguments about what is “the most important oppression” or “the most pressing problem.” There is so much pain and suffering and injustice; it is appropriate, useful, and essential for people to be working on whatever piece they can address.
Yes, I cry my eyes out about this stuff sometimes. But, as you say, “and then we will pick up our loads and we will work.”
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Matt Freeman said:
I found this very upsetting, but I’m glad I read it. It did more to emphasize the *point* of radical acceptance (or just acceptance) than anything I’ve ever read.
Interesting that you focused on guilt and anger as responses to death. I’ve never felt that, I feel something more akin to fear and despondency, like that feeling you get when looking at the vastness of the night sky, but without the counter current of wonder, only the sense of insignificance and futility.
This thing if sensing and accepting your reactions reminds me a lot of stuff in CBT where they advice that in response to anxiety triggers you try not to flinch away but push into whatever negative feeling it is that’s causing it. It’s effective but takes a fair amount of mental energy.
This is very well written.
Do you, um, by any chance know how common it is for people to have the emotional responses you were addressing, at it? Like, 90% of people? 50%?
(as a sidenote, I think it does make perfect sense to be angry at such things, but I think we might just fall on difference sides of’ the ‘is anger positive emotion for you’ thing).
Oh, also good for the ‘what tones are good and bad for me’ thing (this one is bad, and it seems to be basically the same bad as meditation music, but with music tone is harder to put one’s finger on, so I really appreciate). And people are different, and how are things for some other people.
Also very well written, like I said.
So.. what *is* the point of this? Yes, things are horrible and I can’t even save myself. That’s just.. whatever, I can have a drink and at least forget my own troubles.
i mean, it *is* the worst thing in the world, you just described what is bad in the world
Also I found a good meme for this post!
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I’d like to try Radical Acceptance on the issues that plague me, but their truth value is subjective and mercurial so I don’t know how much I have to accept. Seems like standard CBT might be better for that. I’ll have to look into it further.
The thing about death is that it is horrible to everyone except the one it’s happened to. I have spent a few minutes technically dead and I didn’t even notice. The paddles bringing me back was a rather different matter.
A lightbulb does not notice when the switch is flipped to off, but the room gets darker.
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I don’t know how typical my reaction is, but I didn’t find this post upsetting. Instead of genuine fear, guilt, or anger I felt that kind of weird self-indulgent fear, guilt, and anger that you feel after you’ve just read or watched a really well-made tragedy. (Or maybe only some people get that feeling, I’ve actually encountered people who act like “it was sad” is a legitimate and damning criticism of a work of fiction). I know various contemplation techniques I could use to work myself up and make myself get genuinely upset, if I really wanted to, but that seems like it would be pointless.
I suppose my reaction is fine, healthy even, as long as it doesn’t prevent me from donating to effective charities.
I feel like I can sense the horror of Death by reading this post, but I have to make an effort to feel it. I don’t know why, maybe I’ve become desensitized and have given up on trying to feel the sadness. I still want to save the world of course, but I’m dissapointed that I can’t quite get that same sense of moral indignation I used to be able to get from, say, imagining the Holocaust.
“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.”
I deeply appreciate this post, because I think you use an example that anticipates a lot of the intuitive objections I come up with about radical acceptance as someone who spends a lot of time on the radical leftist Internet. I think that radical acceptance probably helps a lot of people, but that doesn’t stop my brain from going “No, that’s what They want you to think! They want to numb out your rational sadness and righteous anger to sustain Their bullshit system.” Because I do see people on the left making arguments like that about various forms of psych treatment. And so even though I find many aspects of CBT and DBT –really fucking helpful–, I still flinch from them sometimes. Because, you know, what if the critics (or the garbled anxiety version that exist in my head, who might not even share the arguments of extant and reasonable humans) are right? What if I’m just propping up the system? (This is probably not super relateable to most people who read your blog, who are not enmeshed in radical leftist Tumblr. But maybe somebody relates.)
But again, death is terrible and inevitable. And it obviously doesn’t come from the structures of our society. There’s nobody we can blame for it. So it doesn’t fit into the hedgehog-y left narrative about mental health, and I become more receptive to your message. There are terribly unfair things in the world, and that’s not reducible to ideology.
I’ve been thinking about your DBT posts –a lot–, and I hope that they’ll help me cope with the existence of Fundamentally Scary and Unfair Things. Not to the exclusion of trying to solve real problems, I hope, but I need more tools to just help me account for things that seem super bleak (while reminding myself that I am not going to disintegrate in trying to acknowledge and account for them). I will not go mad from the revelation!
Thank you again for this post, and in fact this whole series. ❤