I’m back in the bay area for the first time in awhile
this has involved seeing some folks that I haven’t seen in a long time (4-6 years)
in a few cases, these were people that I was quite close to years ago (more like 7-8 years)
well, when I say close, I don’t necessarily mean emotionally close. but we had conversations, worked on projects together, and talked about important things
important things like the end of the world
important things like what we were supposed to do about the end of the world, and how to think about the end of the world, and how we were supposed to feel very scared and very determined to do something about it
and there were two people who, in order to be honest in encountering them again, I had to acknowledge that we had some reconciliation to do. it was scary but utterly necessary to say. any change of heart unacknowledged produces subtle weirdness. distrust unacknowledged makes it harder to get shared reality
as I wrote in 2021: Catching my Breath, I’ve done a bunch of healing over the past years about ways in which I was applying a kind of pressure on myself that made it hard to rest. physiologically I had a sense that there was something not right, something I needed to fix, something not okay about the world.
and I feel like my internal pressure has largely eased off. not that there isn’t more to untangle—I’m sure there is—but overall it feels quite integrated
thus in encountering these old acquaintances, I didn’t have a sense of needing something from them, for my own wholeness. but I needed to have a conversation about it in order to for the two of us to have wholeness, and by extension, for the larger community we’re part of to have wholeness.
I’ve been practicing confronting people, to acknowledge past boundaries crossed, even when there’s nothing to be done about it at this point. It’s really profound, just to have my anger heard and received—to have the loop closed. something laid to rest. I did a bit of that with my parents last fall.
in the first case, you arrive midafternoon, and you see me in the co-what-now corner and come over to talk. you start to just dive in with me about something interesting and timely and quite personal, and I’m finding myself needing to just slow down and acknowledge the tension from years past. you seem disappointed locally by the interruption, but overall appreciative that I’m naming it, and unsurprised to hear that it’s there. we agree to talk about it later. you ask if it’s okay that I don’t trust you, observing that in some sense it seems it might not be, and I say I’ll ponder that. I muse to myself that maybe there’s something in you that feels not okay with it, that is splitting and afraid of being tarred as plain bad.
in the evening, a group of us get in a long conversation, about metaphysics and effective altruism and spirituality and conflict and scene-shatter. at one point I say a convoluted sentence about a particular paradox dear to my soul (perhaps this one) and you stop someone who tries to move on, by saying “wait. Malcolm just told us the essence of his religion”. I don’t know how you saw it but you clearly did, and the rest of the conversation bears that out. you can see something deep about how I’m seeing things, and I can see that you see.
by 3am or so, everyone else has gone to bed, and we’re looking at each other
it’s clearly time to have the reconciliation conversation. we’re both encouraged by having had the chance to see each other in the group conversation, as a basis for that. I can tell we already have some shared understanding about what I call the convergent meta-protocol for human trust-building, from some experiences you’ve had since we last saw each other, though I don’t yet know what or how you found it.
I begin: “to put it bluntly… the last few years, I’ve been periodically pulling glass shards out of my soul, and some of them had your fingerprints on them.”
you nod, following the overall sense of what I mean, without knowing the specifics.
I add: “my understanding, from what I’ve heard from other people, is that you’re aware of that having been a thing you’ve been doing, and you’re not doing it anymore.”
“yeah. tell me about it?”
I recount how in 2019, I heard a podcast where Esther Perel says to a client about his partner who has PTSD flashbacks, “you can tell him ‘you’re safe now’” and I found myself thinking “that’s not okay. I can’t feel that I’m safe in this moment. AI could eat the world, and I’m not doing enough about it. I can’t feel safe until we’ve figured it out.”
I share how I’d realized that this is an utter confusion. that “not feeling safe right now”, as an embodied sense made of cortisol and adrenaline and muscle tension that arises, is for running away from tigers or towards enemy soldiers, not for tackling complex paradigm-transcending technical problems or political problems like AI alignment. that you have to live in a kind of mental illusion to be in terror of the end of the world. and so on.
I don’t need to say much about it—I can tell we’re already on the same page.
I share how when my friends were holding some space for me to process some emotions, I’d uncovered this stuff and been like “what the fuck! that is not okay!” and when I asked myself where it came from, memories of some specific conversations we’d had in early 2016 came to mind.
you’re listening, warmly and precisely. you don’t recall the specific conversation yet but you encourage me to describe what happened and how it affected me
I recall how you invited me to look out the window at the half-million twinkling lights of the Oakland skyline and consider how many people could die if AI eats the world
I recall how when I went towards overwhelmed grief at that possibility, you tried redirecting my energy towards steely resolve
I recall how we moved from one room into another, and how you said something that I analogized at the time as “for the good of the country, one soldier sometimes needs to shoot his friend in the back if he tries to desert”
you start to remember the conversation. it makes sense to me that it’s harder for you to remember—in addition to being more emotionally impactful for me, you were probably having several conversations along these lines around that time.
I recall how I went off on my own after the conversation, to try to shock myself into doing something for the world, and how that involved smashing my phone and spitting on my face in the mirror as part of trying to get myself to WAKE UP AND DO SOMETHING. and how I’d felt grateful for the confrontation
there’s more to share about how the following years unfolded, and I share it.
you reflect it all, and I can tell you understand, and you express sorrow that I experienced this pain and suffering and confusion and that you were a source of it.
I express sorrow that you were a conduit of this pain, and you look at me funny: “look, I don’t know for sure, but I think you might be skipping a step, and there’s something more you need to say here… more anger to express?”
from the outside, I agree: I’d just jumped oddly quickly away from my own pain, in some attempt at fairness or avoiding blame, or something.
I close my eyes and ask my heart what it needs to say
I look up and face you: “I’m not your tool. I’m not some egregore’s tool. I’m a person. I matter.”
you nod affirmatively, echo those words back to me, and add: “and… it was my job to know better, given the authority I had”
I echo that
we sit with everything for some moments or minutes or millenia
you offer: is there anything else you’d like to say or ask?
“…I’d like a hug”
we hug. I weep some.
we talk for another few hours, musing not about how to save the world but seriously considering how we might go about gently untangling things at scales a bit larger than the two of us
then it’s nearly dawn and while we still have plenty of momentum, we concede that we’re out of ideas wiser than sleep
I load the dishwasher and start it, and send a couple voice memos
a few days later, he’s around for the afternoon and evening.
there’s a large group conversation, which was not exactly what he had in mind when he decided to come over, but it’s what seems to be happening
it’s good, but there’s also some weird tension & pressure in the room
I propose you and I go outside. we release a bit of frustration about ways we feel not understood, and about something that seems weird in the conversation, and both recognize that we’ve been trying slightly too hard to make something happen… to communicate… something?
I realize that I haven’t been acknowledging that I have a similar distrust/reconciliation system with him as I had with you, and we figure it would be good to mention that to the group—that even if we don’t take the time to clear the air tonight, the scene will be saner if we can at least name what’s in the air
we go back in
we name a few different things, one of them being that there’s an anger present for me towards him
the group decides to look at it at least a bit
I recount what I’d said to you, the other night, about pulling glass shards out of my soul and finding your fingerprints on them, and then I say “but in your case… that feels like not quite the right metaphor. I find myself wanting to say: ‘you set my parents on fire’”
he blinks at me
“I can elaborate.”
“yeah I think that would be good”
I comment to the others present that he and I were actually quite close in 2014 & 2015—like we talked maybe weekly about a lot of stuff, and worked on some projects together
I turn to him, and recall how sometime towards the end of 2014, we had a conversation where he came in with some new lens on the world situation, and led me through a visualization, something like:
imagine you’re a kid, on the playground outside a school
and you look up, and the school’s on fire
and there’s no adults: no teachers, no parents
what do you do?
and recounted how after the visualization he’d remarked that this is the global situation with respect to existential risk. it’s on fire, and there’s nobody in charge—nobody you can simply turn to and report the issue, who will say “thanks, we’ll take it from here”
I acknowledge: this is, in some sense, true! as this Onion headline put it in 2012: Smart, Qualified People Behind The Scenes Keeping America Safe: ‘We Don’t Exist’
and this is part of why so much of my focus is on collective consciousness! I’m working to help emerge the sort of creature that would be capable of orienting to the global situation and responding wisely
and yet… the tone of the visualization says: be scared. feel panicked. you cannot rest.
and once again, “on fire” is a bad metaphor for the state of the world. fire is fairly well-understood, and we’ve got some playbooks with best practices for dealing with fire. and it’s fast and immediate—if something is aflame you do what you can with what you’ve got until it’s done, and it’s appropriate to do nothing else, including sleep or introspection or strategy, until you have. perhaps with the exception of forest fires that last for days, but I d i g r e s s
I don’t say all of this at the time, I just point out how there was a kind of traumatic meme being propagated that was trying to induce panic-based motivation, and that this is fucked up and that’s what I needed to express
he takes this all in, and says “well, this seems like the sort of thing I might have said at the time, but I don’t remember saying this exactly, and I’d need to reflect more to be confident that I agree it has an inherent likely-traumaticness to it… but all that seems plausible, so in expectation: I’m sorry.”
I can tell he means it sincerely, and I forgive him.
while I was describing the sense of a traumatic meme propagating, I realized that I’d tried sharing to a couple other people in early 2015. maybe I want to reach out to them to reconcile. I have no particular reason to think it hit them as hard as it did me, or that they’d even remember. but then again we’re a scene that takes ideas seriously, so who knows!
and that’s part of why I’m sharing these stories
I’m far from the only person I know who tried to contort myself into a shape that would maximize human flourishing, and part of why that happened was these conversations, in 2014 and 2016. part of how we untangle it is by more conversations like these ones I had this year
in these conversations I wasn’t trying to convince or change the people I was talking to. I wasn’t trying to say anything about who they were as people, or how other people should see them, or their motives at the time. I was just seeking to be heard—to tell the story as it lives in me, and have my experience seen by them, as I experienced it… and to acknowledge how it had affected my relationship with them.
and then, of course, to let things unfold however they do once the distrust has been named—which is often towards reconciliation on some level, and was in this case. but you can’t decide that in advance—you find out by opening to the process.
and then also sharing these stories more widely is part of the process too!
in each story is a hologram of a larger story
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.