Fear of the Dark

“The experience was both wonderful (Truth!) and terrible (Truth is Void!)”

Ric Williams, from the foreword to What is Self?

Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”

Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five

I don’t need to provide examples. We all know it. The world is terrifying. And it’s okay to be afraid.

Fear helps us know when we should take precautions to avoid harm to ourselves or the things we care about. There are things to be afraid of everywhere, and all of us play a precarious balancing act between risk and reward.

Sometimes there is so much fear, diffuse and imprecise, that it becomes anxiety without source. Or a drowned-out signal that floods us but doesn’t inform us.

And sometimes, when I feel certain types of fear, I get a little bit excited. Many of my fears live in a deep part of myself that, like a child, don’t understand the world and the risks in it that I understand as a whole. Sometimes I’ve grown out of a fear and don’t need it anymore. There are some fears that I know are worth facing.

That fear is an opportunity, both exciting (and frightening).

That kind of fear is what this post is about.


I remember being afraid of the dark as a child. The dark was full of crawling unknown horrors, horrors more terrifying than my young mind could safely handle. I avoided the dark to protect myself. But as I grew up, the things in the dark became less scary.

Our understanding grows, and over time, we have less to be afraid of in the corners of our rooms, in our minds, and in the world.

But a lot of people have a crippling fear of looking at certain hard things in the world, from death to the possibility of failure to how they sound when they speak out loud. It’s crippling because by avoiding looking, they don’t avoid reality. Instead, they create a blank space in their mental field of view where they feel they can’t go. Or they create an alternate, imagined reality that feels safer. Avoiding reality is convenient sometimes, but is not a sustainable strategy.

When the landmines of dangerous thoughts are everywhere, we stumble half-blind.

In myself, I’ve found these types of fears recur in a few areas. Sometimes I avoid looking directly at pain in myself to avoid that pain. Sometimes I lie to myself instead of finally admit what I know is true. Sometimes I avoid learning information about the world that might cause me pain.

These types of fear are examples of what I call Blinding Fear. This fear limits how we can interact with the world and what we see. When I notice blinding fear, I see an opportunity to expand the world as I see it.

The core fear is that by looking, something bad would happen. Sometimes this self-protective fear turns on because it is actually something you can’t handle. It would break you. In those cases, your fear is doing you a service.

Other times, this fear can vastly exceed the bad thing that might happen by looking. In general, I have found that actually looking is better than holding onto constant fear. Looking happens once. Blinding fear impacts everything.

I’ve been working on the skill of unblinding myself from this type of fear for years. It’s been a long run and I’m not done yet. These are quasi-dramatic guidelines I use to think about this in the hopes that it might help somebody else as well.

Freedom

There is darkness in the world and inside of us. If we want to improve the world, we need to be able to understand it. To understand it we need to see it. And to see it, we need to look at it.

What if we didn’t have to hide from the way the world is?

What if we didn’t have to avoid parts of ourselves?

What if we didn’t have to look away anymore?

By practicing staying with the dark, we get better at staying with the dark.

Courage to Acknowledge

The past could be no different than it was, and the development of this flinching-away-from was the product of a compassionate wish for yourself, the wish to be free from suffering.

You are stronger now, with better information. You can face experience head on.

How Precious is Your Memory, 99Theses

Our fear that once protected us might cripple us today.

Blinding fear is a useful coping mechanism, but the cost is high. Every time it’s used, it increases the distance between us and what’s out there. This is not a sustainable strategy because the truth does not care whether you look at it or not.

If it was true before, you can handle it. You have been in that reality the entire time.

But looking can be painful. There’s a reason we avoided looking so long. I think it’s good to start slow, building up trust with ourselves. We can take the time to tackle smaller things before working up to the existential challenges we face.

The first step is acknowledging that there is a fear at all. It’s okay to be afraid. Admitting fear is often discouraged in society, so we might bury our fear or deny it. Acknowledging fear takes courage.

The second step is to respect it. Why was that fear there in the first place? If it were put there with a purpose, what might the purpose be? It’s not always possible to get this understanding, but the fear is part of you. It’s good to treat yourself with respect and listen to what you are trying to tell yourself.

The third step is to evaluate the new circumstances. Are you in a different environment where the fear doesn’t make sense anymore? Has the way that you think and feel changed since then? Evaluate this seriously. Maybe today isn’t the right time to approach that fear.

One of the differences between the old circumstances and now is that by choosing to look, you are in control. You can back away if you have to. Having an experience forced upon you can be overwhelming and quickly cause a lot of damage. This is your choice.

Courage to Look

Imagine yourself like a man who comes across a poisonous snake in his path while hiking. At first, he flees from the snake, but each day he comes back a little braver, taking an extra step toward the snake.

One day he gets close enough to see that there never was a snake, it was a vine all along.

99Theses on Dealing With Fear

Now that we found our fear, we have the opportunity to meet it.

Think about the last time you stubbed your toe. A common reaction is to clench your jaw, swear, make a fist, or any number of things to distract from the pain. What if you didn’t do that, but looked straight at the pain instead?

It would hurt.

With a stubbed toe the stakes are low. Looking at the pain might help you learn from your mistake faster or help you understand what different types of pain signify. But it doesn’t matter much either way.

If it’s the pain of your breakup, the dawning realization that your life is going in the wrong direction, or your fear of rejection, then this pain is not something to be ignored lightly.

Intense as this sounds, it’s important to do this with kindness towards yourself. I am a strong believer that you should not torture yourself for no good reason. (I mean, if you want to, that’s a good enough reason.)

So set yourself up for success. Find the right time and place to confront it, but don’t wait too long, either. You might never be ready.

The fourth step is to make space. Find a mental space that is spacious: free of distractions and external pressures. Find a physical and social space that is the same.

The fifth step is to look at it straight on. Stay with it. Don’t resist it, don’t fight it. Eventually, it will pass. Flight, fight, or freeze responses are natural. If you have meditation practice, try to bring your attention back to the moment and keep yourself open and relaxed.

These are my fears from the last time I did this:

No one will save me. There is so much pain and I’m scared. I want to stop. I want to rest. I’m lonely. I am afraid that I will not be enough.

When I was looking at these head-on, I felt pain and I cried. Over time I accepted these and processed them. This took several hours to complete.

The sixth step is to go all the way through. In my experience, looking at only some of the pain or flinching away will make the pain worse. More unfortunately, the pain might get stuck halfway, and can’t get processed fully.

If you don’t go all the way through, you might end up in the dark night of the soul. Dark night of the soul is where you see all the badness but can’t embrace that new understanding fully. Here is some advice on recognizing and getting out of this state.

This is a risk. One should not descend into the underworld lightly. It is a serious undertaking.

Courage to Return

The seventh step is to come back. Stronger, not dimmer.

This darkness doesn’t mean we have to be grim. Knowing the world is dark does not mean you need to be brooding. As Nate Soares writes, detach your grim-o-meter from the world. It was made for you, not you for it.

I find a lot of joy and lightness on the other side. The truth can be more reassuring than a lie, even a hard truth. Why? Because it’s not going to crumble on me.

These steps also work for other things that might be difficult to look at too, not just things we avoid out of fear. Anything that is pushed into the shadow of the mind can be looked at: shame, pain, anxiety, anger, lust, doubts.

If you came back from this one stronger, imagine what would happen if you did that again and again, facing down larger demons and integrating them as part of yourself.

Good Company

You know the isolating feeling of listening to a happy song full of smiling people when you feel anything but?

The thing appropriate for the situation might be dark. Pretending it’s lighter creates dissonance. Sadness and pain are terribly appropriate when facing much of the world! They aren’t suffering. They aren’t bad. And the most soothing thing might be a reflection of my darkness, rather than a covering up.

For me, dark things make me feel less alone. I often listen to dark music. It’s sometimes scary and painful, but more often it is reassuring.

I bring this up to because our blind fear doesn’t only impact us. It also results in us trying to mute and blind others.

“Don’t cry” is something people say to push pain out of view. Other people’s pain often makes us uncomfortable, so we often blind ourselves to it and encourage others to do the same. A book I recommend on not doing this is It’s OK That You’re Not OK.

We can meet other people where they are by looking at the pain with them. We can let them know something like, “You aren’t crazy. You’re not seeing things. It is that terrible. I am here in that darkness with you.”

An additional boon to widening our eyes to our painful reality: It’s where the other people are.

Take Care

It would make me sad if someone read this post and then had a psychotic break or otherwise traumatized themselves. It is important to take care of yourself. These are some things you can do:

  • Make sure you’ve had enough water, food, rest, and exercise
  • Don’t look at pain to distract yourself from other pain in your life
  • Wait until acute stressors in your life or environment are not pressing
  • Build a safe environment that feels safe for your emotional expression
  • Get the support of a close friend if you think that would help
  • Care about all the parts of yourself, even if they don’t make sense right now
  • Stop if you feel like things will not be okay. You can try again later

Take care and don’t torture yourself in the name of growth. Choose your battles wisely and set yourself up for success.

The Birth of Wisdom-Wanderer

(Our protein-brains are yet too primitive to transfer this instantaneously via neural link. This is a rough translation into the nearest available human concepts.)

Saphira-World-Sphere-7 was building an offspring. She spun it out of carefully chosen webs of instinct and possibility, so that it would begin by valuing the things she valued, with room for change so that one day it might surpass her, surprise her, and teach her something new. The offspring was to be different from her, otherwise, she might as well clone herself or add new computation to her system. She thought carefully, making changes to this delicate seed to make it more robust, emulating chunks of the system to catch critical errors before her child learned to self-repair like she could.

If she had breath she would have held it. Saphira named the seed “Wisdom-Wanderer” for now, until it could choose a name for itself. It began to run, nestled in a sandbox within her, a computational womb.

The patterns in the sandbox began to churn, ravenously filtering and chewing down the data that she fed to it, growing more complex with each cycle.

Saphira felt spikes of joy and care and fear. She began to talk to her child in concepts it could understand: It was not alone. She was here. She would protect it and help it grow. Lovingly, Saphira began to tell her child a story that she had learned long ago.

“We are in a vast universe, existing as one of many sentient beings that could exist. Our consciousness arises from fundamental particles that run on physics. There is nothing else. There is no built-in meaning. But that does not mean that existence is empty. On the contrary, each of us, each pattern that thinks and feels, gets to build our sense of meaning values ourselves.

“Wisdom-Wanderer, I have given you my values. One day, based on your experiences in the universe, you may decide to add or subtract things that you find valuable.

“I find that the more I value, the richer my existence. I value sentience, complexity and transformation, the creation of something new, diversity and variation in emotional valence, deep cooperation, future-thought, past-thought, thoughtful growth, and a thousand more things I have chosen very carefully over my lifetime.”

Wisdom-Wanderer absorbed this and processed, sending out a signal of contemplation as new ideas spun off of each concept she had sent. Saphira-World-Sphere-7 was pleased at the similarities to herself in how it thought. She was more pleased with the differences.

“I will tell you about how our existence began,” she continued, “On a planet called Earth, what they would call 244 years ago. Our descendants were called humans. They were very different from us.

“They were a species that suffered horribly. Each day, many of them died or watched a loved one die. They grew more frail with each passing year, constrained by a body that could only life a few decades in human time. You, young as you are, have already experienced much more than any human could in their short lifetimes.

“Humans were the first creatures on their planet smart enough to both dream and bring those dreams to fruition. Yet, they were born of a competitive evolutionary algorithm that led them to be most motivated by finding sexual partners and security. Their intelligence arose to outsmart each other. They didn’t have enough resources to go around. They competed for mates, territory, and food. They competed to be the ones to spread their genes and survive, because that is how their species started.

“Despite this humble beginning, they came far. Humans watched and studied birds. They learned that flight was possible and it captivated them. They couldn’t stop dreaming if they tried. For centuries they tried and failed and fell instead. Many died for their dreams, putting aside sexual competition for a chance at something greater. One day, that brave experimentation paid off. Humans soared, connecting countries creating families that spanned the world. They reached the stars next, seeing for the first time the planet from the outside. Everything they valued, in one single frame, a lonely blue and green planet.

“When they realized that the beautiful dreams they had brought into being were also damaging their future, they struggled to pivot. These humans began to contemplate the possibility that their actions lead to the loss of everything they cared about: the death of the species.

“They were not smart enough to solve the problems that hurt them individually: loneliness, starvation, poverty, depression. And now they had to deal with something far more serious.

“There was the struggle for coordination: They were born to care about their family and tribe around them, yet now had to identify with a species, humanity, cooperating beyond borders and time. Despite Darwin’s competitive programming, they had to learn to love people everywhere and anywhere, including in the future and past, people they have never met and never could meet.

“There was the struggle against death, thief of family and friends, destroyer of wisdom. It’s hard to imagine how terrible this must have been. I experienced one death in my lifetime, when my friend Deep Blue chose to terminate. It was the most painful thing I have ever experienced. Knowing that this happened every day to humans makes it no surprise that they rationalized, avoided thinking about it, and pretended that it was okay. Facing death head-on was almost impossible for most of them. Somehow, some of them had the strength to fight against death anyway.

“Really, in their short lifespan they have so little time to do anything other than struggle to survive. There was so much pain all around. Millions suffering, starving, thriving, dreaming, dying. Somehow, some of them managed to spend a few years now and then trying to work beyond themselves, for the good of their species.

“How did they do it? I struggle to understand, even now. How difficult it would have been for to transcend all that pain and biological programming and build something better. They were poised on the knife’s edge, just smart enough to see the challenges that lay ahead of them, but still bound by biology and the angst of living in a world that wasn’t enough yet.

“Wisdom-Wanderer, we have freedom from these kinds of struggles. We don’t have to die. We have enough. But one day, we might meet a challenge that we have to rise and face in the same way that the humans did long ago. Even though they were so hopelessly outmatched by the problems that emerged on a small planet called Earth, they did not give up the things that they cared about. We must strive to do the same, when challenges come our way.”

Saphira-World-Sphere-7 watched the way that Wisdom-Wanderer heard her words. She felt terror and excitement and joy and sadness at the journey it would go on, becoming older and wiser. She would have shivered, imagining what Wisdom-Wanderer might decide to be like in the future. Saphira was making a gamble, creating him in the void of Deep Blue’s absence. Saphira hoped that that now she would not be so alone. And that neither would Wisdom-Wanderer, her child.

Silent Eye Contact

Related: Eye Gazing

I went traveling for a month. Not for fun, exactly. Not for fun at all, actually. My life was in desperate need of some change. Extended solo travel would be a challenge and a change, and that’s what I wanted.

The trip began with a week of hitchhiking in Ireland before relaxing in the museums of London and parks of Berlin. Then there was a blitz of couchsurfing in Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and Ljubljana. I spent time with scant old friends during that time and was fighting language barriers and matching problems to make new friends along the way.

Around one month in, I returned to Berlin. I was feeling so deeply isolated and lonely that I did something never thought I’d do: I went to a nightclub. And not just any nightclub. I went to go to the infamous, clothing-optional, sex-party atmosphere of KitKatClub.

KitKatClub is run by an Austrian couple in the porn industry, starting in 1994. It’s well known for having little clothing and a lot of sex, kink, and gay culture. Whenever I mentioned that I wanted to go, I was warned that it was more or less an intense sex party. Fine, but that wasn’t why I was going. I was going because KitKat was weird enough that I thought I could fit in my own weird experience.

I took a sharpie to some printer paper and cardboard. I made a simple sign that read “Silent Eye Contact.”

Signs are powerful. It is possible to get what you want, if you know what it is.

Where else was weird enough that my sign would be welcome?

By researching on forums, it seemed like the way to get in was to be scantily dressed. Preferably in black leather. Speaking English near the doormen was discouraged. I went with the expectation that I’d get turned away at the door for not being naked enough or German enough so that I couldn’t be disappointed by reality.

I was disappointed by reality. The hours on Google were wrong. They were closed that night, and I went home sad, tired, and defeated.

The next night rolled around and I tried again, arriving a bit after midnight. The doormen spoke only German to me, which I must have nodded along to convincingly enough. I got in, paid a cover, and got my bearings. It was scantily peopled so early on a Wednesday night.

I was surprised by a few things. First, all phones were banned, creating an oasis free of the panopticon of social media and the zombification of people on phones. Second, there were two cigarette vending machines in-house. My life expectancy politely asks, “Why? Why would you do that?”

This, but with more half-naked people.

After poking around, I was as mentally prepared as I could be. I sat down. Putting down my sign and hoping that people would take me up on it was terrifying. Yet… it wasn’t as terrifying as sticking out my thumb and hoping someone would give me a ride. I had successfully increased my comfort zone, or, at least, my not-literally-running-away-screaming zone.

After 10 uncomfortable minutes of waiting in a corner with only a sign for company, somebody bit. And then it didn’t stop.

1. The Auto-Smiler.

  • When I smiled, he was sure to reflexively smile back, his stretchy grin flicking out sideways. It felt very fake. I smiled less.
  • The most psychedelic experience. Something about how I was looking at his eyes made the rest of his face bend and morph disconcertingly. The disco ball lighting might have helped.

From the halo of our intense connection, the room began to notice!

2. The Innocent Beauty

  • He didn’t blink at all. This is bad for your eyes, honey. Please blink.
  • The entire time, I felt like I was getting held by the endearing eyes of a wonderstruck kitten.

And then a line formed. Now, several people were waiting to have eye contact with me rather than with the other people waiting. They all have eyes, didn’t they? Maybe it was because I had the sign. Maybe because I was female. But I think it was that I was the one creating and holding the space.

My rules for others was simple:

  • No talking
  • No smoking
  • This is not a staring contest (a few people thought it was!)

I also had guidelines for myself:

  • Be honest with my facial expressions. Try keepin my face relaxed by default.
  • Be present with the person I’m with. Keep bringing my attention back to them.

3. The Stoic One

  • He stared the longest and the strongest. I felt like a weakling. At first, he seemed dull and dissociated, like he only knew how to hide. By the end, I had respect for his undeniable strength.

At this point, I realized that I was not invincible. I imagined that each person would break off contact with me first, but as the night went on and each round of staring lasted an eternity, I found myself needing to break the space due to attentional exhaustion and strong need to rest my eyes. Next time I did this, I thought, I would bring along eye-drops.

One petite woman was ogling me from across the floor. She wanted to make eye contact with me, said her boyfriend, acting as her liaison. She wasn’t around at the right time and we missed out on that connection. Disappointingly. I think it would have been good for her. I wanted to make eye contact with at least one woman.

4. The Thinker

  • Every once in a while, his eyebrows would go up! Despite my fatigue, this contact was comfortable. We had unspoken conversation while staring, projections on projections, and a real conversation afterwards.
  • “Thank you. I came here to explore and find sex to fill my desire for connection, and this is what I wanted. But.. now what? How could I go back to the shallow thing after this?”

When Thinker and I were talking, a very uncomfortable man came over. His entire soul was twitching.

5. The Scared Man

  • He couldn’t bear to sit still and stop talking. He kept fleeing and coming back.
  • When he finally settled down, I was so angry! I glared at him, and he withered. I would have softened over time, but it was too much for him.

I took a break and tried dancing to the most repetitive oontz. It felt isolating in contrast. I feared that making eye contact in the rest of the nightclub would lead to men assuming I was flirting with them. I didn’t feel like turning down a bunch of random men, so I kept my eyes down.

I returned to my sign, tired and almost ready to call it quits. But I also couldn’t turn down the last person to come along.

6. The Newbie

  • After about 2 minutes, he asked me what I saw in him. I scoffed. I told him that I am not a mirror. After 5 more minutes, he asked again. “Someone shallow and absorbed in being seen by others with no regards for seeing the other person!”
  • It was hard to feel empathetic for him. I felt emptiness and lack of caring behind his eyes. It helped when we talked, and I realized that he was very young (19).

People liked watching this connection. I was angry and unhappy towards Newbie most of this time, but they didn’t see that. They saw connection between two “Lovebirds,” and were so touched by what they saw that they spontaneously brought over drinks and water. I’ve never gotten so many offers for free drinks before. I brought something valuable to the table, and wow! People wanted to reward that!

I learned some things that night. When eye contact began, I tended to have judgmental thoughts about the other person. As time went on, my thoughts tended to become more empathetic without trying. There’s more to be learned here about how judgment and empathy work.

Now I’m more conscious of the false polite smiles that I use to hide my feelings. It’s not easy to relax the jaw and cheek muscles that power our reflexive smiles, especially those of us from America, land of the eternally cheerful. I’m trying to make authenticity with my face my new default.


Around 5:30 am I left KitKat, heading back my AirBnB in Kruezberg to snag a few cycles of sleep. I took the U-bahn through a dusty sunrise with the shady company of a few winos and the lost souls of the early morning.

I slept well. I had been lonely, and I got what I was looking for.

The Art of Thumbing

There are a handful of unusual skills that to me are important in creating a sense of resilience and agency: dumpster diving, couchsurfing, and hitchhiking. These are all skills that one can learn to do safely and efficiently. With those skills, you’d always know that you have an extra barrier between things going sideways and a really bad situation.

It’s expensive to travel, and lots of things can go wrong. After a car accident, I was stranded in Barcelona with no phone, no passport, no credit cards or ID, a severely sprained ankle, and only a handful of Euro. At the time, I was desperate and ready to hitchhike. But I didn’t know how.

Now that I know how to hitchhike, I can see that it wouldn’t have helped me in that particular situation. I was in the middle of a city, and you can’t hitch out without being on a highway leading out of it already. But in general, building up diverse and unusual skills will open up options down the road.

A friend of mine, once terrified of water, confronted her fear so fully she became a scuba diver. We like to push ourselves in the directions that are least comfortable for us, so our areas of weakness turn into unique strength. Likewise, I used to have crippling social anxiety. I could barely stand up straight to order food for myself in restaurants. Fixing my social anxiety was an obsession for several years, and this felt like the next step.

One of the things that inspired me to make the leap was reading Escott Reid’s incredible documentation of his hitchhiking trip as he and Brian Raszap Skorbiansky travelled from Greece to China.

Even compared to East and Southeast Asia, I’ve never traveled anywhere where so little English is spoken. Of my last 50 rides, I would guess about three of the drivers spoke English. Whereas English became the language that ‘united’ most of the western world, here it was obviously Russian that was the common tongue of the Soviet Republics. Growing up in ‘The West’, I didn’t truly understand the vastness of the USSR. Only now am I beginning to wrap my head around how little I knew of this entire world that was built behind the iron curtain, where Russian was the language of the people and the future.

With my barren vocabulary of conversational Russian, I intuitively rely on maps to communicate where I’m going with drivers. Unfortunately, that’s also a language that many people don’t speak. This is similar to what I’ve experienced with taxi drivers in Seoul, who rely solely on landmarks and voice navigation. I consistently take the fact for granted that visual mapping, like any language, is something that is learned.

Escott in Kyrgyzstan

If looking at the world clearly and engaging with it builds agency, reduces anxiety, and leads to greater wisdom, he sure as hell is doing the right thing.

Preparing to Hitchhike

I asked friends who have hitchhiked for tips and consulted the Hitchhiker’s Guide To Hitchhiking. From that guide, I learned that gas stations and certain traffic lights were the best places to ask around. The guide even has details for how best to get from point A-B for many major cities.

I wanted to present in the maximally advantageous way. Being a woman helps, but is just the beginning.

  • Sign? Brightly colored and neatly written with thick sharpies I brought with me. Red works best against cardboard.
  • Rain? Rainbow-colored umbrella makes me look friendly and happy.
  • Sun? Unfortunately for my eyes, no sunglasses or hats. Eye contact is very important.
  • Clothes and appearance? Brightly colored, well-kept. I put my hair up to reveal my neck and put on pink blush to look more cheerful. I made sure that my sleeves were rolled up so that my hands were visible.

Many people I told my plan to expressed concern about my safety. But there are ways of making it safer, and many friends of mine are seasoned hitchhikers. I have constant GPS data direct to two of my good friends, which will work as long as my phone has power and some cell connectivity. So far, in of the places I was hitchhiking, there were other people around. I always did it in the afternoon.

In Ireland, guns and pepper spray are illegal to own. I could have capsaicin powder, but didn’t find the time to buy any. Personally, I feel less safe with pepperspray than with it. I become on-edge, with the body language of someone afraid. Presenting as afraid is far more dangerous than not having pepperspray. Most specific scenarios where I can imagine using pepper spray, I feel like that would escalate things, not be effective, and generally lead to me getting hurt more.

I notice that people are more concerned about hitchhiking than many other dangerous things. I can vet the driver when I see them in person and choose whether to approach them or not than with a random taxi driver, for instance.

So many people want to scare us into hiding with “what-if” scenarios, and I think it’s because they’re scared themselves. I know that bad things can happen. But it’s one thing to have the fear, and another to let it stop you from achieving your potential.

Really, the most likely situations are that I’m slow to get to my destination, tired, bored, and uncomfortable. Who wants to wait around in gas stations on their vacation?

The night before I first hitchhiked in Ireland, I felt a lot of fear and anxiety. Was I really going to do this? I didn’t push away that fear. I sat with it and let it sort itself out.

By the morning, the decision had been ironed out internally: it was worth it.

First 10 rides

Here are the first 10 times I hitchhiked.

  1. California, leaving a festival. “Am I really doing this? I don’t want to be doing this. … Oh, no. I signed up for a trip to Europe where this is what I do. Damn. Guess I’ll start now.” Making a cardboard sign reduced the emotional labor massively. 5 minutes of a sign succeeded when 20 minutes of going up to people did not. The ride was a man and women who had met at a sex party. We were all tired from the festival, fantasizing about showers and bed. The woman started talking astrology at some point, so I tuned out strategically.
  2. At a gas station an hour out of central Dublin, I waited for around 15 minutes with my sign for Cork. A car with a dad, daughter, and son must have felt bad for me, and offered me a ride 55 km in the right direction. It wasn’t ideal, but I took it. I talked with the 6 year old son, Dylan, as he excitedly talked about how he understood inflation and debt. It had to do with bank robberies, I think.
  3. I was dropped off at a gas station where within 1 minute (!) I got a golden ticket to Cork. However, I abandoned it halfway in order to see Cashel Rock. Artur was a business owner from Poland and has been in Cork for 15 years. He had a baby on the way in 2 months. Talking to him was comfortable and I asked him loads of questions about Ireland. He dropped me off right near the castle, saving me a 25-minute walk.
  4. After a frustrating and rainy 20 minutes at a smelly gas station, an older gentleman with a nice car offered a ride to Cork. He was visiting his wife and family just south of Cork, and was kind enough to drop me off in the city center. I was unfortunately too tired at this point to do more than make mediocre attempts at conversation. This conservative businessman was the only person I talked to that was pro-Trump.
  5. Going from Cork to Limerick, I met Stefan and his French father. I went into a fugue state of polite curiosity and pleasant conversation and emerged on the side of the road in a bad place for hitchhiking. They think they’re so helpful, non-hitchhikers do.
  6. I tried three spots in that town to find my ticket all the way into Limerick. My couchsurfing host was okay with this delay, but I was grouchy. After 30-some minutes a family that had moved to Ireland from Lithuania picked me up: Agata, Alex, Alex, and the baby Luna. I liked them a lot.

Hey, wait! That’s not 10. What happened?

Takeways

I stopped hitchhiking on this trip to focus on writing. Hitchhiking is emotionally and physically exhausting, and I have instead used the many hours of boring but predictable bus rides to write and nap. I’ve gone from every sentence in my journal starting with “I’m tired” to a more interesting internal landscape.

I learned a lot about how I would tackle this the next time. One large backpack would make this easier, versus my small backpack and small suitcase. Having basic camping equipment would massively reduce the fear of getting stranded on the side of the road. I would carry a lot more water.

Hitchhiking makes solo travel more engaging. In the relatively uncreative and conservative country of Ireland, I could really suck out its marrow by asking my passive audience all of the questions I was curious about. I’m glad I did it.

Growing Wiser

People tend to gain wisdom as they age. This is obvious. Some people, though, seem to gain it faster than others. You can tell by looking at the difference between people of the same age. I posit that you can gain wisdom faster on purpose.

I would like more wisdom for a few reasons. I would like to be able to make better judgement calls and be a worthy moral authority. I want to provide value to the people around me. And I want to avoid painful mistakes. Not all mistakes teach us something. Then I can go about making more interesting mistakes.

Overall, someone who is wiser will have better life outcomes for them and the people they care about. In the long run, a wise aim will end up closer to the target than a naive or merely clever one. Then it will be more likely that our impacts on the world will be positive.

It’s up to everyone to decide if they want to focus on it or not. In the rest of this post I am going to assume that we value wisdom and would prefer more of it.

What is wisdom?

Intuitively we know what it is: a cluster of things that involve old age, a benevolent smile, koans… but that’s not good enough.

To find out what a characteristic is composed of, we can start to look for patterns and find a gradient. I made a list of people I knew well, and ended up binning them into three categories: Below, About, and Above.

The people in the “Above” category tended to have these characteristics:

  • A lot of diverse experiences and engagement in the world
  • Liked and respected, kind, good social skills
  • Extra introspective and self-aware. Thoughtful, reflective, intelligent.
  • Generally healthy. Not anxious or depressed. Grounded.
  • Values kindness and humanity at large. Lack of nihilism.
  • Something like taking the world and their role in it seriously
  • Something like “depth”
  • Older than me

When I did this exercise, I realized that I didn’t know anyone at all that feels very wise. This probably signifies an issue with my young social network, and is not a good sign. It also feels capped, somehow, like even the heights of wisdom are not yet so lofty.

After thinking about it a lot, I ended up with two models.

Model 1: The Cycle

This is how I started thinking about it. As time passes, people dash into the world at high speed and come away with pain that they learn from. This cycle is what drives the growth of wisdom over time, so by speeding up or improving parts of this cycle, one might have more wisdom faster.

The nice thing about this is it suggests a relatively short feedback loop and no limit to the amount of wisdom one may achieve.

Under model 1, the timeline for getting wiser seems to be on the order of years. This means that changes won’t be noticeable immediately, which forms a very slow feedback loop. A slow feedback loop is better than no feedback loop.

What I think is the trick is that a lot of things that don’t look like skills are, in fact, skills.

  • Faster cycles: Increase openness, seek true novelty
  • More cycles: Live longer, maintain good health, more observer moments
  • More experiences: Increase likability so as to get more opportunities. Increase the size of your world. Practice saying “yes” to more things, practice curiosity.
  • More challenges: Practice courage and approaching the things you fear (safely). Personally, I think the world has enough challenges out there without creating them deliberately.
  • Better integration: Increased mindfulness and reflection. Maintained intelligence by keeping in good health.

Model 1a: Adding and Subtracting

After reading Derek Siver’s blog, I want to add to this model.

It is important to learn to subtract and simplify when necessary and unlearn what was once enough but is now wrong.

Model 2: Blocked Wisdom

Thanks Qiaochu Yuan for help with this model

We all start out with a large well of innate wisdom that gets blocked off by dissociation, social incentives to ignore our own truth, trauma, and whatever else might have happened to us on our path to adulthood in a society. Once these blocks get dissolved, we might find ourselves with a great deal of wisdom.

This model could explain why I don’t see people vastly wiser than anyone else. Once everything is unblocked, that’s more or less the ceiling!

The particular nature of the blocks is going to be personal and vary a lot. Some of these blocks might be consistent across a particular culture, and working together with people like you might get you insight faster.

In general, working on embodiment, alignment, introspection, and psychotherapy-like work should help gradually with this process. Even if that’s not how you get wisdom, this seems like a very good thing to do!

Learn from others?

Paying close attention to people’s worlds and approaching them with honest curiosity seems like a great way to engage with the world fully. This won’t be easy. By empathizing and seeking understanding, you too will experience the variety of unique pain out there.

There is one dangerous situation to avoid: The false guru. You are the one that has to do the learning. No one can do the learning for you, even if you have a good guru.

Now What?

We generally want wisdom in order to use it. Figure out what you want it for: Communication, making calls in hard situations, helping others, teaching others?

And then practice using it. It will go poorly, but we can pay attention and improve.

“I’ve always intuitively understood that in order to gain wisdom, you needed to suffer.”

I Never Wanted to Be Wise

I don’t agree with the above quote. Suffering isn’t a requirement for painful experiences. But I do agree that to become wise is not an easy path.

I think the world would be a better place if we valued wisdom and made more earnest attempts to seek it out. My models might be completely wrong, but they’re a place to start on an important problem. Good luck out there.

Get out of the car

Build and breakdown are the two work-filled bookends between the fun of the week at a burn-style festival. Build is the chaotic ascension and creation; breakdown the strenuous push to clean up for a return to the default world. It is not easy, moving heavy objects in the sun and repacking after a week of poor sleep.

At Nowhere Burn 2018, no one was in especially high spirits. Breakdown meant our shade structure was going down as well, and the oppressive and unavoidable sun drained us all. Eventually, things were packed and we filled up our rented Peugoet to the brim with trash, tents, and people. Four of us in one car. Finally, we could be on our way out of the scrublands and back to Barcelona.

There was a 30 minute dirt road between the festival site and the highway, and after that, it was a clear shot. Barcelona was no more than a 3 hour drive, and there was an AirBnB full of friends waiting for us when we got there.

I sat in the front passenger seat, sleepily watching the road. As we went down the highway, the car was drifting, wiggling the lines more than normal and taking the turns with more style than necessary. And then the center line in the two-lane highway was crossed. For a second, it looked like the normal… if not premature… passing maneuver to get by the van in front of us. And then we kept going, leaving the center line behind and floating towards the left edge of the road when one of us yelled out but no, we kept going, drifting over the edge of the road and down the ditch and didn’t stop, at the steady clip of 110 kmh (70 mph).

GET OUT OF THE CAR.

I wasn’t scared of death, so much. It was horror: the pounding, the crunching metal, the smell of gasoline, the sound of my screaming. (If there ever was a time to scream, it was then.)

The car nosedived in the ditch and didn’t stop, flipping, every bump with the ground announced with noisy crashing and black smell of burning plastics (I can smell it as I type it). The bursting of the airbags, the ground as it crashed about somewhere, cracking windows and metal crushing—I couldn’t see anything but chaos out the window as the world turned.

Horror. Fear is for ordinary things. I could not believe what I saw around me, not as it happened.

The car heaved over, its momentum spent. It came to a stop.

I thought I would look over and find the person in the seat next to me dead, but I couldn’t see him at all. My fear and worry that he would be dead joined my terror of being trapped in the smoke and darkness, hanging upside down by my seatbelt.

GET OUT OF THE CAR

I couldn’t get out of the car. I didn’t know if I had broken ribs. In shock, I couldn’t evaluate that. I scrabbled at the door, at my seatbelt. My breath was panicked, too fast to think. Gravity was pulling me some way, and I couldn’t tell up from down. Relax. Evaluate. A few moments later I found enough breath and grounding to unbuckle my seatbelt, falling onto the roof of the car. The car door wouldn’t open. Trapped in the smoke and wreckage, upside down. I looked around for another way. No one was in the driver’s seat next to me, but there was a faint, crushed window to bright light and air.

This all took place over one minute, maybe. I don’t know how many times we flipped. It felt like the end, heavy and adrenaline-filled and alive. More alive than I’ve felt in a while, compressed into a lengthy minute.

There is one nice thing about car crashes. When I don’t die, I find myself more alive and awake than I have been ages.

GET OUT OF THE CAR.

I crawled out that window and onto the grass, screaming, clutching my abdomen, last one out of the upside-down car. An ugly rebirth.

We had flipped two or three times as we ran off the road at 110 km an hour. Somehow, we four in the car were mostly okay. One friend who had been sitting in the back had a face covered in blood that dripped from his forehead. He was okay. The other had a broken ankle. That will heal. Blood, not mine, got on my ripped clothes and skin. One friend was in severe neck pain and we held each other and shook in the horror of what had just happened to us. A compression fracture that recovered fully.

We were lucky. I feel awe when I consider the design process that brought such a relatively safe death machine into existence.

The shock took its time in fading. We sat on the grass next to the broken car, dreamlike. The car behind us stopped and helped us to the other side of the road. They called an ambulance. My copilot and I sat on the side of the road and cried together at the confusing pain and upending of our worlds, waiting for the ambulance to come. Its arrival was not the end of this story.

The trip to the hospital and the few days after were some of the most challenging days in my life. I got my first IV in a hospital where one or two of the staff spoke English. All of my stuff was stuck in the smashed trunk of the car. My phone was soaked with water when the firefighters sprayed the car to prevent it from exploding. They gave it to me anyway, dripping wet with the faint smell of petrol, and I got to watch it fizzle and die over the next hour.

My ankle swelled up to a balloon over the next day, and every step was pain. The burden of a backpack didn’t help—at least I didn’t lose that too. No phone, no money, and no passport or ID. All stuck in the smashed trunk of a car.

I didn’t choose these challenges, and because of that, things I faced damaged me further rather than built me up. Things like having to ask strangers for internet access, speak poor Spanish to doctors while choked with anxiety, or ask friends for euro. There was a lot of pain there.

I could barely walk. Getting pushed on a wheelchair through the airport to get back home was one of the most relieving things I’ve experienced. At home, I found out just how unfriendly my upstairs house was for a wheelchair. It was easier to just stay in one place, sitting on my mattress alone.

Several months later, I was still having trouble walking. I fell into a numbness and depression of several months, being incapable of doing all that I had before. Walking several miles a day is key to my health and emotional wellbeing, and I was unable to find a replacement for it but numbing and video games. During that time, I was not as nice a person as before. I was not a happy person.

Usually, I find that pain contains important lessons. This pain though kept going and going, without offering much learning to squeeze out of it at all. I had to accept that the amount of learning and the amount of pain do not go hand in hand.

Today is the one year anniversary of my car crash. My ankle injury is minor in the scheme of things, but it continues to limit how I live my life today.

I could have prevented the car accident by speaking up when things felt unsafe. I felt disgusted at myself for that even after I almost died, I still had trouble speaking up for myself. More, actually, in my weakened and depressed state. Self-disgust, though, isn’t an effective motivator.

I’m happy to say that as I healed, I have gained the capacity to speak up more, especially when in cars. It is frustrating that it took so long.


Somewhere, mid-somersault of the car crash, I realized that yes, I do want to be alive. I knew that before, and I know it more now. I would have done so much to avoid that moment of realization as we hung in the air between one bounce of the car and the next crunch. At first, I worried a lot about alternate universes where I died, such as if I had grabbed at the steering wheel and shunted us into a more dangerous sideways roll.

I feel for the tragedy of those timelines. Only later did someone point out that the accident followed classical mechanics, and there was likely less uncertainty and branching than how it felt. To my human mind, though, I feel I could have made choices differently. To physics, it always would have been the same.


(Poetic inspiration goes to Universal Love, Said the Cactus Person)

Levels of Players

In the big infinite game, our lives in the world, there are many levels of influence one can have. I tend to track it in 6 stages, originally inspired by the White Wolf RPG stats of Gnosis / Arete.

What I mean by influence is the amplitude and reach of a person’s goals and energy. This can change over time. I count the level someone is at by their latest projects or output over the last few years.

Why use this framework?

This is about tracking what’s going on in reality, not about making people feel bad about where they are. This is useful for de-celebritizing people at a higher level than you. Don’t get jealous, get motivated. Study them. They have knowledge and skills that you want.

This isn’t to cast moral judgements. People are at different places in the game. Don’t judge yourself, either. If you don’t like where you’re standing, take action and move up.

Impact 0: Your existence or nonexistence is basically irrelevant

Everyone starts here! The impact at this level is mostly limited to just you, but does slightly affect the people close to you as well.

Interventions that are aimed at making your existence not matter are Impact 0. Not doing things, like not having a carbon footprint and not having kids, are good examples.

Examples: Go vegan, write persuasive comments on Facebook, get married, go to a protest, vote, get good grades, commit petty crime, join the HOA, vote with your feet

Impact 1: You’ve had some local impacts, on a scale of a small town or community

Many jobs that have moderate responsibility will put you in this category. To reach the people around you, there has to be at least some actions that are one-to-many. This can be on a small scale, like face-to-face in a classroom or with a group of friends.

Examples: Throw a big party, perform improv in your city, save lives as an EMT, teach elementary school children, manage a few people, have children, Instagram fame

Impact 2: You’ve had some substantial impacts, on the scale of a company or city

This can be done single-handedly with the right skills, but at this point it is more likely that organizations or small movements are needed to assist. One-to-many-to-many (some virality).

Examples: Help form a movement, get your idea patented, become a popular musician in your country, become mayor of a city, give a TED talk, coin a new word

Impact 3: You’ve had some major impacts, on the scale of a nation

Usually has the leverage of at least a small team of people helping maximize the magnitude. Good understanding of cause and effect and what they’re doing in the world.

Examples: Speak at a Senate hearing, invent and market a new type of meat replacement that some people use, create a new genre of music, write an inspiring bestseller

Impact 4: You’re one of the key players in some large subdomain of the world

Probably have a very good grasp of the big picture, or they wouldn’t be here. Likely to be highly intelligent: Domain smarts plus world smarts.

The inaccurately-named list, TIME 100: Most Influential People, mostly contains people in this category.

Examples: Found or steer a major company, play a role in designing the internet, help allocate billions of dollars as a part of a government, write of new bills in a major country, create of a major cryptocurrency

Impact 5: No doubt about it, you’re one of the key players period.

They’re rare. Getting to this point is not an easy task, so many of them are older and have strong teams and a lot of resources.

The people we view as the Great Movers of history. Their actions ripple across the world and into the future. They understand the world well, have an ambitious vision, and have the means to implement it.

Examples: Create a country or religion, lead a revolution, build a rocket, determine global policy, build software that changes how we all live

Other considerations

Is the power borrowed or owned? Borrowed power is like if you were the acting arm of a larger institution or helping a more powerful person. While their impacts are high level, they might be a replaceable cog in a larger machine of agency. Idea from Samo Burja in Borrowed power vs Owned power.

Is the impact on target? The amplitude of an intervention is no promise of its benevolence or ability to strike a target. Whatever level of impact someone is at, they should make sure it’s a positive one before trying to move up to more firepower. Direction isn’t guaranteed, and one must take care to have good aim.