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My blog entries are about a personal battle against depression and anxiety, from the point of view of someone who has been immersed in rationalist/LW ideas and culture for a few years now.

In a chat with my little brother two nights ago, I told him about my "pain-strain theorem" - physical strain can be used to alleviate mental pain, and mental strain can be used to alleviate physical pain. (Proof as exercise for the reader.)

I introduced the idea to tie up several narrative-of-our-lives style observations:

  • I worked very hard on my schoolwork in elementary school. A large part of my motivation was that I had a severe chronic illness across my whole body. Keeping myself mentally occupied offered some sweet relief from the constant pain.
  • Our father also has a chronic illness that causes him a lot of pain. Before he developed this illness, he was a gregarious, vivacious twentysomething - a hard worker to be sure, but also a great jokester and eager team sport player. By the time we were being reared, however, he had pulled away from all of that and started sinking all of his time into his decently mentally challenging work.
  • Both my brother and I are diagnosed with mental illnesses. Both my brother and I find a solid, high intensity workout to be one of the best ways to escape the vicious thinking cycles we get locked into. For me, sometimes, the unthinking that comes with being 40 minutes into an elliptical workout is akin to sleep.

My chronic illness thankfully began to relent as I became a teenager; my grades began to slip. My depression deepened; I isolated myself in academia; my grades returned to their high point. I went to community college and let the maw swallow me. I had very close to a 4.0 before transferring out of my community college to an Ivy League, when everything else in my life was terrible - no money, no career prospects, few friends and newly feralized social skills. Now that I'm here, with much better treated depression, almost complete remission of my first chronic illness, a paid research for the summer in my field, and a loving circle of friends and family, I'm at risk of failing one class and I'm almost certainly taking an incomplete in another.

Of course I'm telling myself a story to fit this data in. To an outside human my life is an n=1 narrative, but from the inside, it's an n=1000 series of vignettes, otherwise unconnected and terrifying in their ambiguity.

The current narrative, then: I only worked hard at school so I could ignore the other sources of pain in my life.

This is not a sustainable way to live a life unless you make sure your ignorance of those other areas is a total eclipse. Even small improvements can become threatening - losing weight, learning to flirt. It's certainly no way to live a good life, even unsustainably.

When I say "fear is a fossil fuel", what I mean is that relying on it to provide your motivation to work hard indefinitely is not going to work. I do not deny that it is a powerful motivator. I mean that you should use it as little as possible to keep your life running the way you want it to. Fear of missing deadlines, fear of unemployment. Fear of failure in all its real, hard-to-ignore forms. Try to remove that from your arsenal and find something better to push you internally to do the same quality work or better than you have been doing. Find a sustainable emotional fuel like... Love. Compassion. Curiosity. Whatever speaks to you.

I remember over the last week seeing two interesting things. One, a study found that over half of its participants who had donated money to effective altruist causes five years ago did not do the same this year. Second, I read a post by Ozymandias on their blog Thing of Things about, among other things, their emotional fuel for donating. And it wasn't from the same scrupulosity that so many EAs fall into - another fossil fuel - it was from a genuine desire to help people. They explicitly said they don't think people who don't donate are "bad" people, citing the act/omission distinction as surprisingly important to living a sane modern life. Ozy is coming from an emotional core that is solar-level sustainable. Even if their family fell on hard times I think they would get back to donating.

The new narrative, then: I used to work hard in school only to keep my mind off things. Now I do it out of love and compassion for all the future human beings I can contribute to the well being of, by building and applying my skills.

Many thanks for reading. 🙂


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