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Coming Back from the Abyss

by Grayson Bray Morris

This essay was first published in June 2022 on this site. Its permalink is here.

Let's face it: the world looks pretty fucked up, and the evidence points to humanity.

This has been a five-decade source of distress for me. As the rosy optimism of young adulthood melted under the ceaseless assault of reality, I began searching for a worldview that would relieve this distress. My atheism slid into nihilism, which was terrible ("there is no good and bad, so how stupid is it to be kind in a world that rewards self-interest?"). I then tried very hard to embrace theism ("everything has a purpose, and that purpose is good, and it will all work out well for everyone even if it looks like utter shit out there right now"). I wanted the problem to be that I was just looking through the wrong filters, and age-old religions had actual answers, if only I'd bother to look. This worked for a while, but only because I really wanted it to. I mean, it's blindingly clear this world is not run by a loving, omnipotent overlord.I think it's valuable to acknowledge this sustained — and life-saving — suspension of disbelief driven by my existential misery. I have a lot to say about these three years, and will in a future essay someday.

I didn't realize I was headed for the abyss until I started to feel tired of living. Started to think if the next fifty years are just going to be more of the same, count me out. I wasn't depressed (I've been through severe depression, and this wasn't it). I just didn't see a way to recapture the joy of being alive after five decades failing to make sense of — and make peace with — the world as it is. And without the joy, well, eh. Why bother?

Giving up felt like a release — not the excruciating misery of depression's they'd all be better off without me, but a neutral, logical response to the facts. The rational part of me recognized that whatever it felt like, this was a dysfunctional response in a system designed entirely to stay alive. So I quit my job and took a sabbatical to find a way back from the abyss.

Hope and hypotheses

Best I can tell, there is no cosmic plan or purpose, but that doesn't mean nothing matters. Whether or not it's an illusion, I have a fierce ethical code that feels real and important.My ethical code in a nutshell: people should take care of people caught in hard situations, be good listeners, think rationally, be kind to children and animals, and choose long-term resilience over short-term gain. People behaving well don't get all up in other people's shit, don't view life as a zero-sum game, and don't pursue money as an end unto itself (in fact, there'd be no money in my ideal world — but that's a whole 'nother post). Keeping this biological organism alive requires confidence that the ethical problems I see in the world can be fixed. The problem is, the evidence doesn't look good.

In my teens and twenties, I believed full equality and peace were on their way because duh, who thinks that's a bad idea? But the world kept being shitty — only recalcitrantly, shin-kickingly dragged into the tiniest reforms. Somewhere along the line, I started to think that maybe that's because most people are either charismatic assholes or self-absorbed idiots — I mean, why would any of the shitty shit in history ever have happened if they weren't? In other words, I started to entertain a very depressing baseline claim about humanity. And that claim took me to the edge of the abyss: hopeless about the future and cynical about the present, lonely and misanthropic, weary at the thought of witnessing another fifty years of morally bankrupt wolves slaughtering everything good in the world while placid, moronic sheep chewed the latest cud and thought about their pronouns.

Facts are facts, but this claim about humanity isn't a fact. It's a hypothesis about why things are so damned shitty. It's tempting to think it's a fact because it seems so obvious: humans are masters at shaping the world, the world sucks, ergo most humans must want the world to suck. I didn't sit down and think, okay, let's look at the evidence and see what that might mean. Like the slowly heating water surrounding the hapless frog, it just sort of snuck up on me. Second after second after second, new stories of people behaving shittily, fifty years long.

And then I woke up at the edge of the abyss.

In retrospect, my determined leap into religion was my first attempt to back away. It had the same basic claim about humanity, but a better prognosis for the future. This was a life-saving waystation on my way back to safety — not only because it slowed my slide toward the edge, but because those three years showed me second after second after second of people behaving well.I was fortunate to find a really, really good church.

And that made it possible for me to dust off my previous hypothesis about humanity, before my long slide into misanthropy.

That hypothesis is this: Human beings, if raised in the right environment, would be kind, compassionate, mature, rational creatures, whereby objectively atrocious things like war, pollution, and discrimination would cease to exist, because they are so obviously bad and stupid.

I don't think every human being is good at heart deep down; I suspect that no matter how fabulous the nurture, some people's basic nature is sociopathic self-interest. But I do think that 99.99% of people are not that irrevocably fucked in the head. I think the evidence also points to the highly intelligent having innate, fiercely held ethical codes that line up with mine,A good starting point is here. and to the average person being mostly a blank slate whose values leach in from their environment.I've written a little about that here, and seen firsthand how my private choice to go vegan has shifted the eating patterns of those around me in the past ten years. I think if everyone had lived in the right environment throughout history, we would never have gotten into the mess we're in now. More importantly: it's still possible to bring about the right environment and end the status quo.Through concrete action like radically overhauling global educational systems and governments. Hey, I said possible, not simple. And that's so very, very hopeful.

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train