Life, struggle, and the psychological fallout from COVID

I have a friend in the effective altruism community who is facing an unusually slippery and disheartening struggle at the moment. This person is a long-time contributor to the community, and is held up as exemplary by other community members. Due to their integrity, they are in fact respected highly, yet this person often feels that this respect is about to slip away, and does not know whether the community will stand by them in the years to come. No matter how well the community takes care of its own, it is just not possible for any of us to know for sure that the community will stand by us through thick and thin, and this is a frightening thing to be uncertain about.

I have another friend who has recently been entrusted with quite significant resources as a leader within the community. They are expected to deploy these resources in service of the future of all life. Our society so prizes the position of allocating resources that we often simply call this “success”, yet from the inside it is a very difficult position to hold, not just because it is difficult to allocate resources in service of the future of all life, but also because it is difficult to convey the extraordinary weight of this responsibility to others, and so a big lonely space opens up that almost no-one enters any more, and yet the furore of day-to-day decision-making continues hour by hour, and it is just not possible to put it aside, because it matters.

I felt this weight myself when I started a company a few years ago. I was only responsible for taking care of about 30 people, not the future of all life. Initially I was so happy that I was doing what I had wanted to do for so long, and was empowered to do it. But later, as we struggled to fund the company, I faced the furore of responsibilities, and realized that I was committed to a difficult path, which, due to integrity, I could not, and should not, put aside. I felt walls closing in on me, and I found myself holding tension in my body that just wound tighter and tighter, and still the mountain of decisions in front of me really mattered because they had real consequences.

I have another friend in the effective altruist community who is in full battle mode right now. This person feels that they are under attack, and, given actual circumstances, this is understandable. This person is actually very good at battle, has experience in it, has developed a kind of resilience that allows them to be effective in it, has no desire to fight for the sake of fighting, but is not afraid to fight if that is what is needed, and certainly will not set a precedent of being intimidated into submission. There is a great energy unleashed in the clear identification of a fight that rightly ought to be fought. No longer swept up in the infinite maze of infinite time horizons, this person feels, in a certain way, enlivened by the opportunity to pour their significant capacities into the destruction of a clear and present danger to the world.

This battle mindset is not very – how shall we say? – popular in the modern world. Human civilization has such extraordinary power now that we could wreck real havok by outright fighting each other, and of course by “real havok” I mean the end of all life on the planet. For this reason our culture has quite reasonably turned against this battle mindset, but there is a certain baby that has been thrown out with the bathwater. This baby is the clarity to cut down Moloch wherever he arises, using force and strategy where necessary, holding nothing back. Moloch refers to the web of tangled systems and habituated human behavior that are the root cause of all that is evil in the world. Cutting down Moloch does not mean cutting down any people, but it does mean cutting down certain habituated behaviors expressed by people, and such a stand may look, from the outside, very much like a battle between people.

I write this because I sense that our community is ensnared by a few internal battles at the moment. I myself feel this in certain ways in my own life. If you are engaged in a battle at the moment, please do not lose track of what it is that really ought to be destroyed – Moloch – and, if you see an opportunity to truly destroy that thing, without destroying people in the process, do not hesitate to break through that despicable maze of mirrors.

Here at MAPLE, we just put three of our long-time residents into solo retreat cabins for the winter. When we do this, we gather outside in the snow to walk with the retreatants to their cabins, singing a song that was given to us by members of the Abenaki tribe in order to send off our friends to struggle alone in the wilderness for a very long time. It is a terrifying thing to look into one of these cabins, which are just large enough for a bed and a meditation cushion, and consider spending months in silence striving for liberation in such a place. This is one approach to cutting down Moloch, and it is an extreme approach: put aside every single thing in your life, and then bring all of your attention to one single thing, and keep bring it back there, hour after hour, month after month, until every pattern that you’ve lived your life according to falls apart, and then from there assemble a new, more streamlined, more aligned mind with which to love the world.

It is an incredible thing to watch someone stepping into this. The retreatants say something to the community when they reach their cabin. It is always difficult for them to know what to say. They are voluntarily entering into a totally unknowable struggle. We see them walking in the forest and coming to do laundry and using exercise equipment in the main building, but we do not talk to them. We pray for them to return the community with some kind of wisdom that can help us all move forward in our larger struggle against Moloch. They meet with a teacher every day or two, but the rest of us do not talk to them, and if they happen to come into an indoor space at the same time that we are there, we fall silent so as not to inadvertently rekindle the patterns of thought and behavior that they are working so hard to see through.

At the other end, after two or three months of striving, we gather again and walk to a cabin to welcome them back into the community. We sing a different song this time, a very beautiful song, and we are so happy to have them back in the day-to-day events of the community. It is difficult to express what this is like. This person has just gone through a kind of unfathomable struggle, over an unfathomably long time. It has been, always, excruciatingly difficult, as they have longed so deeply to cut down the confusions and hesitations holding them back from fully showing up in the world, yet it is so difficult to do this. How is this actually done? It is one thing to have a theory about it, quite another to sit alone in a cabin in the snow with nothing to do for months except make it real.

We are so happy to welcome them back. After we meet them at their cabin, we walk with them directly to the meditation hall and gather in a big circle and invite them to share whatever they have to share with us, because we know that the clarity and joy of such a retreat fades quickly. It is an otherworldly experience to witness this. They have ventured very far from the well-worn paths that our minds walk in tending to the day-to-day affairs of running the community, and so they have, for some time, a slightly broader perspective, seeing certain fixations that none of us previously realized were fixations. As a community, we are trying to cut down Moloch completely, across the whole world, but Moloch is insidious, and sometimes the thing that we think is cutting down Moloch is actually perpetuating Moloch, and we just can’t see the difference because the thing we’re using to do the seeing is itself Moloch. So we send people out, supported materially by the community but ultimately on a solitary psychological mission to see what none of us have been able to see, in order to bring that perspective back, in order that we can all root out Moloch more completely from our minds, in order that we can then offer that to the world.

I mention this thing about solo retreats at MAPLE only because it is the same basic struggle that my effective altruist friends seem to be going through: the epic struggle against Moloch, made personal. It is, in the long run, impossible to hold any part of ourselves apart from that struggle, so eventually it pierces our most deeply vulnerable parts, and we find ourselves conducting this battle in the place that we have most tried to keep safe from the horrors of war.

One of the things that MAPLE most excels at, in my view, is understanding the importance of struggle, and creating an environment that supports the kind of struggle that we most need in the world, without glossing over the really difficult part of that struggle. It is one thing to say “yes it is important to struggle”; it is quite another thing to be two years into a PhD with absolutely no end in sight.

I am writing this essay to convey, as best as I know how, what seems to be most helpful in the midst of an important struggle. It is not mistaken to struggle. It is not that there is some other perspective in which the struggle doesn’t really matter. It really matters. It is not that there is some other way forward that avoids struggle. There is no other way forward. Bring forth all of your capacities. Know that this moment of real, tangible struggle is where the rubber hits the road of resolving existential risk. This matters. Keep going.

And how do we do that?

Well, one of things about being in the midst of struggle is that our perspective can get really narrow, as we focus so much on what’s in front of us and the importance of it. It’s worth asking, therefore, what additional facts we might not be seeing in the midst of our struggles.

In particular: is this all just long COVID? I mean this whole difficult situation that some of us seem to be in, that seems to be so unique and separate to each of us. I have my own struggles, you have yours, and they seem quite different, and at times it seems, to me and perhaps to you, that things are just objectively terrible and getting worse. Perhaps this is so. But let’s just recap the last few years, just in case it shines any new light on our current predicament.

Five years ago, a somewhat controversial president was elected in the US, the first ever not to have previously held any political or military office. Then, in the very middle of that presidency, a worldwide pandemic broke out, and most every country closed its borders, and people everywhere started working from home, alone, when they could. Then, in the very middle of that pandemic, a sequence of unfortunate policing incidents led to a series of protests concerning police brutality. If you had told me a decade ago that this was the reality that I would live through in my early thirties, I would have been terrified. Yet here we stand.

It has been two years now of greatly heightened anxiety. This kind of thing, over such a long period, becomes the water we swim in. It seems that our individual struggles are all just individual struggles, but are they? If you put some humans on an island and subjected them to various catastrophes designed to generate anxiety then each of those humans might consider their own personal struggles to just be their own. But really it would be more accurate to say that there is a single collective phenomenon on that island, and that each person’s individual struggles are partly outshoots of that. Perhaps planet Earth has been that island over the past two years. We are almost used to it now, which is dangerous, because we stop seeing the way that our individual struggles are partly an output of our collective conditions.

It doesn’t make our individual struggles less real. I myself have been struggling to come to terms with being hurt by a beloved friend these past few weeks. That’s not imaginary. But in order to deal with our situation we need to start with an accurate appraisal of what’s actually causing what, and perhaps this situation of mine is partly generated by the giant psychological fallout from two years of COVID.

Seeing this way, my struggles become much less personal, and less lonely. I understand that this particular struggle that I am confronted with is, in a certain way of seeing things, my part in the greater struggle of recovering from COVID. I see that the most important thing is to move through it without taking actions that unnecessarily prolong the recovery time, and that others are basically going through their own part of the same collective recovery process.

Is that how it is? All this anger and frustration and hostility? Could it be that this is fallout from COVID? This period will certainly be written about in the history books of the future. How will those books describe this moment at the end of the year 2021? How will we, in our future memories, place our actions in the context of that? Let us not realize later that we were bamboozled by a collective psychological phenomenon and fell into fighting and distrust. Let us instead look back and see that we saw things clearly, and made use of the situation to move forward with our mission to safeguard the future of all life.