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.