Cross-posted on lesswrong.com and integrationbyparts.substack.com.

Compare and contrast with Duncan Sabien’s essay A Way to Be Okay, written in parallel and with collaboration.

See also: Mental Health and the Alignment Problem

Photo by Simon Berger

If you look around, there are plenty of reasons to be gravely worried. Existential risk from artificial intelligence, climate change, political upheaval, pandemics, and all kinds of systemic oppression – take your pick. Humans have been saying since the beginning of written history that the end was nigh, and maybe this time it’s true.

Today’s article is for people who are pretty freaked out. People who think something unprecedentedly awful might befall us in our natural lifetimes.

If you’re not one of those people, fantastic! Carry on, this one’s not for you. The point of this article is not to debate whether there’s doom around the corner, it’s about how to cope if you already believe in that doom. How are you supposed to be okay? How are you supposed to go on being a person, with that great dark doom cloud hanging over your head? Should you panic? Should you give up? What do you do?

I spend considerable time helping people grapple with that question. I can’t say I’ve completely solved it even for myself, much less for everyone else. I am in love with living and would prefer not to stop. I am a mother to three children, and when I look straight at my grief that their lives might be cut short, I can barely breathe for the sharp pain of it.

I have a few leads on how to be okay, despite it all. Here’s what I know.

Agency and Acceptance

If you’ve ever been to an AA meeting or seen one on TV, you’ve heard the Serenity Prayer. I’m not religious, myself, so I tend to omit the opening supplication to God, or just go with the Mother Goose version:
 

For every ailment under the sun

There is a remedy, or there is none;

If there be one, try to find it;

If there be none, never mind it.

 

Whichever flavor of doom is on your mind, it is unlikely that you personally are in a position to fix it. Even if you do happen to be a leading AI researcher or a vaccine-developing epidemiologist, you still won’t save everyone all by yourself, especially given that we’re up against multiple dooms at once. You’re going to have to figure out what you have control over and what you don’t. For the control bucket, you need to apply agency and for the can’t-control bucket you need to apply acceptance.

When it comes to these Big Bad Dooms and your personal control over them, they mostly fall into the can’t-control bucket.

People run into a lot of trouble with the can’t-control bucket:

  • They try to stay in control anyway and give themselves an anxiety disorder.
  • They get very angry and give themselves heart disease and hypertension.
  • They get despondent and fall into a deep depression.

We as a species are not very good at acceptance.

Acceptance looks like: seeing clearly what is going on and how limited your own role is. 

Allowing yourself to feel grief about your lack of power, lack of control, how sad you feel about how the future is unfolding, how much you wanted a different future that isn’t likely to come to pass. Trusting that you are strong enough to weather that grief. Neither shirking the grief nor dwelling in it; spending time in it for a while, setting it aside to do other things, and then returning to it later. More on this in the next section.

And then, when you feel like you might be strong enough, returning to the can-control bucket and getting on with your life. More on this in the section after that.

Actually Grieve

Many people don’t realize that grieving is something you can actively participate in, that you can be conscious and intentional about how you experience the pain of loss. When you are up against a big loss, you either grieve it or you numb yourself, and if you numb yourself too hard for too long, you don’t just skip the pain, you become a sleepwalker in your own life, acting the part of a person but not really feeling any of it.

So, then, if you decide to grieve, how do you do it?

Lots of people have written guides and rituals for this, many of them quite good – but they also tend to be about a different kind of grief, about the loss of a loved one or something else from the past. Those rituals are about memories and gratitude for what we used to have, rather than the loss of a potential future.

When I grieve about the future, this is how I do it:

  • I spend some time thinking about what I have lost. I really flesh out the expectation or vision that I used to have, that I now find myself cut off from. What was great about that vision? What about it gave me joy and hope?
  • I acknowledge that that future was never really mine anyway; it was just a prediction.
  • Next I spend some time thinking about the world I now believe is the real one. I notice as many differences as I can, most of which I judge as bad, but a few of which may also be a relief.
  • As I think about those differences, many feelings come up. Anger, rage, fear, sadness, despair. I allow the feelings to build and then subside again. At their peak, I wonder if I can tolerate the intensity, but it always turns out that I can.
  • After the feelings, I feel tired, a little weak, but clean. I do something to take care of my physical body. I stretch, I drink some water, I rest.
  • And then I get up and get on with my life.

You may grieve very differently. The key, I think, is to feel the feelings; how you access the feelings is up to you.

Grieving is not a one-off. It’s a practice. For very large updates, it can take a while to integrate all of the emotional response. You don’t have to feel all of the feelings to completion in one go – and you probably can’t. But if you chip away at it, you can get to a point where you are stable and fully functional in your new reality, neither numbed out nor twitchy and reactive, at peace with the real world you actually live in.

Keep Striving

It is important, in the face of Big Bad Dooms, to keep on striving. You may or may not have agency over the Actual Problem, but you have agency about something.

We don’t know what the timelines are on anything. It is too soon just to give up on everything. Human brains thrive on actually trying. Pick achievable goals that stretch you a little bit and then go do them. Have fun with them.

Continue to try to build and grow and improve your own life, and the lives of the people around you. Make your little corner of the world better. Maybe we’ll figure out a way through the Big Bad Doom and you’ll be glad for what you’ve built. Maybe we won’t, and you’ll still be glad for what you’ve built.

People often wonder, “If I’m very concerned about problem X, should I work on that problem myself?” And the answer is, “Maybe!” Many of the Big Bad Dooms I listed at the outset would benefit from more direct, hands-on help, especially from bright, creative thinkers with fresh ideas. But this article is not about how to solve the world’s problems, it’s about how to be okay even though those problems look pretty unsolvable. And so I’m here to give you permission to work on something else instead, something that seems completely unrelated to the big Actual Problems. It’s okay. You can find meaning in other kinds of work and it still counts.

I help people with their relationship and sex problems, and through that, I help reduce suffering and increase pleasure in the world. My work chips away at systemic oppression but it sure doesn’t do any good on climate change or AI ex-risk. It’s my hope, though, that I make the world just a little more worth saving, and just a little more tolerable or even enjoyable for whatever time we have. I find meaning in that, and it helps me be okay.

The Good Hours

Humans live in the past, the present, and the future all at once, all the time.

Struggling under the dark doom-clouds is mostly about a general foreboding sense of future badness, rather than about pain in the present moment.

If we live too much at that broad time scale of months and years, we might fail to notice the present. We might fail to notice that right now, this very moment, we are okay, and maybe even better than okay.

We have lots of kinds of moments in every day, even on the worst days.

You can have good seconds and minutes and hours even while you are having bad months and years.

Be there for the good parts.

Joy is okay. You are not bad for feeling joy.

Connection and Community

All of these kinds of doom are affecting all of us. These are some of the most universal human experiences ever. We are literally all in this together.

We can hold each other, taking turns falling apart and being strong, or sometimes falling apart together.

Avoid isolation if at all possible. Community is vitally important. That’s hard, when the Doom of the moment is a pandemic, as it was recently, still is for the immunocompromised, and will be again for all of us if nothing else gets us first. By my reckoning, most of us sold off too much community during the Covid-19 pandemic and purchased too little with our isolation.

Co-regulating with other people helps you be okay.

More Grasshopper, Less Ant

Finally, the only thing I know for sure about all of these Dooms is that the rules for life are changing. There will be a tremendous amount of upheaval in the coming years. With so much volatility and unpredictability in our economic, social, and political structures, tried and true strategies for plotting out our lives feel unhelpful. Traditional notions of career and retirement planning are unlikely to serve us well.

My suggestion is this: don’t front load all the work and expect to get your payout decades later. Do an even mix of work and play all the time from now on.

(This is probably good advice in any case?)

See if you can find a point to living that is more rooted in the present and less rooted in the future. What are you here for? Can you find that around you, right here, right now, not next year or after you graduate or once you’ve retired, but this week? If that’s elusive, see if you can shift your attention to something that is here this week.

Live your life. Savor it. Be kind to other people. Don’t hold grudges. Stop doing things you hate. You always knew, “life’s too short.” Well, start living like you actually believe it.



 

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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:03 PM

(this comment is copied to the other essay as well)

I respect the attempt, here, and I think a version of the thesis is true. Letting go of control and trying to appreciate the present moment is probably the best course of action given that one is confronted with impending doom. I also recognize that reaching this state is not just a switch one can immediately flip in one's mind; it can only be reached by way of practice.

With these things in mind, I am still not okay. More than anything I find myself craving ignorance. I envy my wife; she's not in ratspaces whatsoever and as far as I know has no idea people hold these beliefs. I think that would be a better way to live; perhaps an unpopular opinion on the website where people try not to live in ignorance. It's hard not to be resentful sometimes. I resent the AI researchers, the site culture, and I especially resent certain MIRI founders and their declarations of defeat.

I think that means I need to disconnect, once and for all. I've been toying with the idea that I need to disconnect from the LW sphere completely and frankly I think it's overdue. Dear reader; if you aren't going to go solve alignment, I suggest you consider following suit. I might hand around a bit to view replies to this comment but... Yeah. Thanks for all the food for thought over the years LW, I'm not sure if it was worth it.

Do what you need to do to take care of yourself! It sounds like you don't choose to open up to your wife about your distress, for fear of causing her distress. I follow your logic there, but I also hope you do have someone you can talk to about it whom you don't fear harming, because they already know and are perhaps further along on the grief / acceptance path than you are.

Good luck. I wish you well.

Hi, I really like this post (as well as the other one) and largely agree with the sentiments shared. Below are some of my personal takeaways from reading these two posts (may not represent accurately the intentions of the authors):

  1. Be realistic with the amount of influence I can have on the future
  2. Separate out the things I can influence and things which I cannot
    1. Apply agency to the former and acceptance to the latter
  3. Set my "victory condition" as something that is within my influence
    1. This way, I will be motivated to actually do things in life instead of being paralysed by depression
  4. It's ok to grieve and to admit that the future probably will suck no matter what I do
  5. There is still value in living life in the present regardless of what happens in the future
    1. Enjoy the journey more, focus less on the destination

I hope these points will be valuable to the community and serve as a succinct summary of the (what seems to me) important takeaways.

Are there currently any online support groups for individuals struggling with this specific issue? Even a simple space where people can see they're not alone would be immensely helpful IMO.

I like the "More Grasshopper, Less Ant" analogy, but it wasn't really covered outside of the section title. Was this referring to taking big leaps and being surprised at the net benefits of being ambitious, instead of meandering along conforming predictable routines and subroutines like an ant?

I assume this is referring to the ancient fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper", which is about what we would today call time preference. In the original, the high-time-preference grasshopper starves because it didn't spend the summer stockpiling food for winter, while the low-time-preference ant survives because it did. Of course, alternate interpretations have been common since then.

Yes, that's correct, I was referring to the fable. I should probably have included a broader hint about that.

Yes because the grasshopper in an alternate history does the ant strategy and gets eaten by a bird before they can enjoy surviving the winter.

Or huddles in misery all winter, eating stored food, only to die of aging right before spring.

I spoke briefly on acceptance in my comment to the other essay, and I think I agree more with how that one conceptualized it. Mostly, I disagree that acceptance entails grief, or that it has to be hard or complicated. At the very least, that's not a particularly radical form of acceptance. My view on grief is largely that it is an avoidable problem we put ourselves through for lack of radical acceptance. Acceptance is one move: you say all's well and you move on. With intensive pre-invested effort, this can be done for anything, up to and including whatever doom du jour is on the menu; just be careful not to become so accepting that you just let whatever happen and never care to take any action. Otherwise, I can't find any reason not to recommend it. To reiterate from my last comment, I'm not particularly subscribed to any specific belief in inevitable doom, but what I can say is that I approach the real, if indeterminately likely, prospect of such an event with a grand "whatever", and live knowing that it won't break my resolve if it happens or not - just not to the point that I wouldn't try to stop it if given the chance, of course.

"You'll be fine!", I shouted, as he fell towards the lava.

More like "enjoy the dive!"  

Agreed, I was just being flippant (and quoting Oglaf). In fact I wholeheartedly endorse this post. Your version is much better. 

That is not remotely what this post says.