The perpetual hesitation of the neurotic to launch out into life is readily explained by his desire to stand aside so as not to get involved in the dangerous struggle for existence. But anyone who refuses to experience life must stifle his desire to live – in other words, he must commit partial suicide.
— Carl Jung


Demoralization, Consciousness, & Agency

The common parlance around existential risk contributes to the proliferation of existential risk precisely because it makes no effort to identify or address its root causes — the shared root causes across many different kinds of existential risk. Peering only briefly at the surface, as our social and political discourse is wont to do, we react reflexively with fear, we recoil in horror at some effect, and our first thought is to jump toward the its direct manipulation or management.

We are not invited by our public interlocutors, the media and our leadership, to examine the complex, non-linear chains of causes and effects which gave rise to the superficial and scary end at which our knees jerk, because it would undermine the basis for delegating our power to them. If we begin with the presupposition that nobody, with any level of intelligence, and with whatever amount of study, can understand the complexity of life sufficiently to make such prescriptions, then the whole artifice of our current institutions would crumble.

They are crumbling anyway.

Out of our fear, we have a collective and unconscious refusal to accept the frightening state of affairs that our eyes do not betray us: we sit firmly in the dark.

However hard it is to let go of our fears and believe what we see, we have little choice. There is no evidence that our current institutions, in their current modus operandi, possess either the knowledge, or the discipline, the power, or even the will to correct our course in time to avoid plummeting into the abyss of our own genius — for in nearly every instance, the annihilation we face is of our own creation.

We are at much greater risk of thermonuclear holocaust than we are of an earth-destroying comet. We are already in the process of a mass extinction event. We have already flicked the first domino in the machine intelligence gambit. We have plenty of things to worry about for which we are direct participants in the cause, and while other, more distant threats may loom, we must take the sane and sanitizing advice of Jesus to let tomorrow worry about its own problems — today’s will more than keep us occupied for the moment.

Given the adversarialism of our politics, the football match quality of our reporting, it has become easy in our heads to externalize blame and responsibility. The polluters are the problem. The clear-cutters, the cattle farmers, the banks. All of these are contributory factors at the superficial level, but it is wrong to think that the bankers have a knife to our throat.

There is just the one knife, and just the one throat.

This is not to say, of course, that certain people and elements within our society do not have more power to influence particular areas of causality — but it is wholly wrong to think that anyone is more to blame. Existence involves all of us, and we all contribute to its current composition and aesthetic appearance.

In any case, I can only take responsibility for my own actions, as I cannot force anybody else to do anything. The fiction that pervades our political discourse is that we can, by collective will, force people do things against their own. People naturally resist being forced to do things, and the more they are forced, the more they tend to resist. That resistance can take two forms — one of which does not look like resistance, and thus people are fooled into thinking that coercion works.

The obvious form of resistance is refusal, non-cooperation. This represents a reactive psychological response, fighting back. If you believe that political power is sustainable, just attempt to force a non-cooperative adult to do something they do not want to do — you will quickly see that many people are required for the effort. How many police officers are required to arrest a single person? Have you ever considered why?

But the other, less obvious, form of resistance is resignation. This is tacit cooperation, cooperation to avoid sanction. In its conscious manifestation, it is actively pretending to go along, knowing that the pretense is a deception. But all too often, it manifests unconsciously. The person does not even quite know that their half-heartedness is their instinctive & animal mindbody, resisting coercion.

The ultimate form of resistance, as terrible as it is, is suicide. In horror of one’s own powerlessness to effectively resist coercion, or in the lifelessness that follows resignation, a person removes themselves from the coercible pool altogether.

Viewed through this lens, our suicide epidemic can be understood at its roots, rather than at its branches. What we call a “mental health crisis” is really the result of demoralization. People are not committing suicide “because they are mentally ill,” they are suicidally ill because they have been demoralized.

Nearly all of us have been demoralized over the past decades — and likely beginning with the World Wars. It has been a gradual, but accelerating process.

Demoralization results from the perceived loss of agency. We could call agency ‘freedom’, because in the most literal sense, this is what freedom means. But our political discourse has confused the word, has twisted its connotations. So for the remainder of this essay, and any subsequent essays I might write in this series, I will use the word agency, and I will use it to mean the following:

Agency is the perception of a direct correlation between intention and action.

In other words, I feel like I have agency over my own life when I perceive that what I want or intend comes about through my actions and the response of my environment. My definition does not require the perception to be accurate. To some degree, agency is always a misperception, or more softly, an over-simplification. There are causes within me that I cannot understand which give rise to my intentions before they become actions, and “I”, the thinking-self, or what Freud would call das Ich, and which we have translated, curiously, into the Latin personal pronoun ego, is certainly driven by unseen forces.

But this does not compromise my understanding of agency. The freer the individual, the more they understand these unconscious forces, in fact. Consciousness is about increasing awareness of that which was previously unconscious.

As our consciousness flowers, at both an individual and a collective level, we in fact gain more genuine agency — more on that later. But it will always be something like the concept of an asymptote in mathematics — it will approach the limit, but never reach it. We will never be fully conscious, and therefore fully free.
Here we have an adequate mutual understanding about my usage of the word agency to be able to return to discussing its role in our current context of demoralization, and its implications for existential risk.

part one

The Will to Live and Embrace Challenge

Despondency, Meaning, and the Spiritual Crisis as the Foundation of all Existential Risk

Unless you have been truly suicidal, it is quite impossible to adequately model the subjective experience of suicidal ideation. Having endured two lengthy periods of my life where I had to combat daily suicidal ideation, I can say this with near certainty, for it brought me into contact with other people who clearly did not know, and could not understand what I was experiencing.

Until I woke up this morning fired with the inspiration for this writing, it had been only an article of faith that there must have been some Providential reason for this particular affliction recurring in my life. I even remarked to a dear friend yesterday that I presumed GOD had his reasons, even if I could not see what they were. It is one of the great spiritual truths — and humors — of life that our passing remarks often bear more weight than our premeditated thoughts. For as soon as I externalized the sentiment, the answer came.

My conscious experience with suicidal ideation permits me a perspective on suicidal behavior that those who have never really considered it would be quite blind to seeing. There is something categorically unique about people who have given up the will to live. Having been through it myself, I have not surprisingly attracted people into my sphere who also struggle with such thoughts, and on numerous occasions, I have been called to talk somebody else down from the cliff. One of the things I have brought into those experiences is the painful understanding that, at a certain level, nothing I say will sound convincing — because when I was in those circumstances, nothing anybody else would say was very convincing.

The will to live does not come from the rational mind, and cannot be argued by it. As David Hume rightly observed “reason is…the slave of the passions.” But the will to live is not merely an emotion, or an emotional state, it is a spiritual one.

In our Indo-European tongues, the word spirit derives from the ancient verb meaning “to breathe.” Of all the vital functions keeping our bodies alive, breathing is both the most time sensitive and the most unconscious. A few minutes without oxygen and life’s fragility shatters. By contrast, we can go a couple of days without water, several without sleep, and quite many without eating.

The connection of the spirit and spirituality to breath permeates all religious traditions. Meditative practices raise conscious awareness by focusing attention on breathing, the literal source of our life minute to minute. St Paul’s description of scriptures as being noumenal, or “God-breathed” likewise makes the point. The notion that the world was spoken into existence implies the breath (have you ever been able to speak when you couldn’t breath?). The Qu’ran similarly, in numerous instances, speaks of the Lord breathing his spirit into somebody, and many ancient Sufi practices focus on breathing.

People have been known to starve themselves to death, but as far as I know, it is impossible to suffocate oneself by the will alone. Some external object or intervention (e.g. hanging, noxious asphyxiation) must be chosen in order to cut off breathing.

If I wanted to kill myself by suffocation, I cannot just decide to stop breathing. My unconscious organism simply will not allow it, and my mind is not powerful enough to overcome it.

We can see here that the will to live is separate and different from the instinctual fear of death. They may at times be seen as cooperating in harmony, but they are not the same force.

This is why our suicide epidemic is actually much more widespread and catastrophic than our official statistics lead us to believe. The vast, vast majority of people who commit suicide do so slowly, and thus their cause of death is labeled otherwise.

Indeed, we would be right to consider our chronic disease epidemic as a subset of the suicide epidemic. Drug & alcohol abuse and lifestyles that have a high likelihood of leading to diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease evidence a loss of the will to live combined with a fear of death. At the margin, the fear is real and palpable, hence the panicked seeking of medical care by those suffering the consequences of these lifestyles at peak severity. In some sense, it is the embodiment of the following contradiction:

I don’t want to live, but I don’t want to die, either.

Furthermore, addictive and compulsive behaviors with adverse health consequences create a self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating deterioration of both the survival instinct and the conscious will to live.

If you have ever been extremely ill or in excruciating pain (including cognitive suffering), you might have had the thought or feeling that death would be preferable. Whether this sentiment consciously surfaces or not, it is apparent in the self-destructive behavioral patterns and attitudes of people whose health is compromised.

For people suffering chronic anxiety and/or chronic depression, whether motivated by dysfunctional relationships, dejection & hopelessness at the broader problems of the world, financial stress, lack of fulfillment — whatever the cause — the same loss of the will to live manifests as indifference, apathy, listlessness, or acedia, one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Acedia is usually mistranslated into English as “sloth,” and most people think it is the sin of laziness. But acedia isn’t laziness. In the monastic literature of the Desert, acedia is sometimes known as the demon of noontide. As the desert monks were usually fasting during the heat of the day, including abstaining from water, the arrival of the overhead sun was physically and psychologically the most difficult — equidistant from the memory of the cool morning and the relief of the coming evening. This period, for the contemplative monks, was when they were most often vexed with difficult thoughts, regrets, questioning if the sacrifice of their vows were really worth it.

As you can see, this has to do with the will to continue, and thus acedia is really, at its root, about the loss of the will to live, a spiritual immobility (and hence the misleading translation as “sloth”). It truly is a mortal or deadly sin — losing the will to live is a self-imposed death sentence by gradual decay.

Notably, the cultivation of this loss of will is the design of the psychological warfare strategy most commonly known by its German name Zersetzung, which literally mean something like “decomposition”, coming from the verbs “to set” and “to spoil”. This strategy, used by the East German secret police, sought to arrange a series of demoralizing events in the lives of the people they were targeting to become informants or agents. After so much inexplicable misfortune, it turns out almost anyone becomes willing to betray a family member and spy on their employer.

Though a slightly less literal translation, zersetzung is really dis-integration: the loss of integrity; nothing holding the organism together.

Whether intentional, or merely the combination of inertia and the marginal incentives of late capitalism, the past thirty years in the West have been characterized by a sort of mass-scale zersetzung.

Lacking a central column to hold it up, in the aftermath of secularization, Western culture went from being a raft drifting into the open ocean to being a civil war between the people on said raft. The “culture war” could be more accurately described as a division between two groups grieving the collapse of Western civilization in the World Wars, both of which are stuck in the phase transition between anger and bargaining, with the ‘other side’ the object of both.

“If only they would just agree with us” is the bargaining-heavy underpinning of Leftwing ideology.

“If only we were left alone to make our own decisions without their meddling” is the anger-heavy underpinning of Rightwing ideology.

They may seem the same, but there is a subtle, critical difference. The Left sees as its main objective, the conversion of its adversaries — it requires agreement with them in its fantastic Utopia. The Right, on the other hand, would be content to not see the Left at all — the Right does not want or need the Left’s assent, only its neglect.

In both cases, this is impossible. The Left no more wants to leave the Right and its interests alone than the Right wants to change its mind. This insurmountable stalemate transforms socio-political grief into existential grief. The hyperfocus on politics, and the political aspect of our existential risks have created a collective myopia that makes the entire human enterprise appear completely hopeless.

Extended over time, this society-wide hopelessness has lead to widespread acedia, which has demoralized people, and gradually debilitated them from acting in their own interests, which in turn has made their individual lives more hopeless as well, reinforcing the doom loop ad infinitum.

This problem cannot, and will not be solved from the top, down. We analyze metanarratives ex post facto to their evolution. We fail to have an embodied understanding, for example, of how Christianity developed, not only as a religion, but as a cultural force. A no less relevant example of this phenomenon is the perennial and laughable attempt at creating “the next Silicon Valley”, the boondoggle real estate projects of hapless governments and potentate entrepreneurs who do not understand the organic evolution of the original Silicon Valley from its own unique set of starting conditions (which can obviously not be replicated).

This makes both backward-looking and forward-thinking cultural reform projects dead on arrival. We can no more reconstruct the past than we can build a future out of nothing. We certainly cannot build a future if it requires everyone, or even a stable majority, to agree about it.

Instead, the response to the spiritual crisis begins with a return to the individual and addressing his existential malaise, working outward to families, neighborhoods, towns & cities, regions, countries, and the world.

Only real, individual vibrance can take full responsibility and accept the legitimate suffering requisite to solving problems. Collective acceptance of the suffering inherent to solving problems is a function of vibrant individual spirits coming together, mutually putting aside their grievances about the past, resisting the urge to assign blame, and seeing others as pathways rather than barriers to realistic improvement.

The maturity required for collective-scale acceptance of the reality of existential risk is already well beyond what can be commonly found even amongst the educated and the economic & political elites — to say nothing of the general population. Mere acceptance of the reality, likewise, is not a sufficient condition to produce the maturity to act realistically in response.

The vibrant spirit says “I will do whatever it takes, as long as it takes” not “I’ll do it if it’s not too inconvenient, doesn’t require too much sacrifice, and can be finished in a few months.”

The deteriorated spirit wallows in self-pity, laments the state of the world and others’ refusal to act, and looks for blame anywhere and everywhere it can be pinned.

The vibrant spirit, on the other hand, doesn’t care about any of this, and learns that, perhaps with great difficulty, that the past no longer matters, and in fact, cannot matter, that in fact: either the past must be buried, or the future certainly will be.

This was the vitalizing force that Christianity offered individuals, families, and communities in the ruins of the dilapidated Roman imperium, a break with the past without trying to erase it or pretend that it didn’t happen, that is to say — repentance.

To accept the present precisely as it is, to be willing to live in that present, without wishing for its conditions to be different, and moving forward from there, without guarantees about the end-state of the movement — this must form the basis of any effort to restore the will to live and the vibrancy of life.

Without this spiritual restoration, we cannot expect to witness the rise in personal responsibility and civic engagement necessary to begin tackling existential risk at any scale. To those habituated to top-down thinking, it may seem like we do not have time for that.

To the contrary, if you really understand the root of the problem, you will realize we do not have time for anything else. We simply cannot afford another decade, another succession of decades of further decline, grasping for the slipping straw of political panacea that “surely must be just around the corner” or presumed to materialize once things are really “bad enough to wake everyone up.”

In the concluding lines of his essay Circles, Ralph Waldo Emerson observes the essence of spiritual fortitude, of the iron will to live joyfully in the present without reference to or grievance over the past, which we must now rebuild:

The great man is not convulsible or tormentable; events pass over him without much impression. People say sometimes, “See what I have overcome; see how cheerful I am; see how completely I have triumphed over these black events.” Not if they still remind me of the black event. True conquest is the causing the calamity to fade and disappear as an early cloud of insignificant result in a history so large and advancing.

The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment. The great moments of history are the facilities of performance through the strength of ideas, as the works of genius and religion. “A man,” said Oliver Cromwell, “never rises so high as when he knows not whither he is going.” Dreams and drunkenness, the use of opium and alcohol are the semblance and counterfeit of this oracular genius, and hence their dangerous attraction for men. For the like reason they ask the aid of wild passions, as in gaming and war, to ape in some manner these flames and generosities of the heart.

These flames of the heart may be rekindled by restoring the physical health of the body, renewing our sense of agency from that over which we have direct and immediate influence, and growing again upward and outward until our will to live at the individual scale moves our hearts to take action to save our collective skin.

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