Coping Mechanisms

Coping With Collapse

(Suggested soundtrack for this article: Coping Mechanism by Shovels and Rope)
A comic from KC Green's series Gunshow.
This comic by KC Green from the series Gunshow really sums up the current situation perfectly: The world is on fire all around us and in order to stay sane we have to find ways to cope, no matter how delusional they may be. Read on for some suggestions that range from practical to theoretical, and try to ignore the scent of barbecue in the air…

Most of the time it goes without saying that learning about collapse can be depressing as hell and really difficult to deal with. Knowledge of mortality in general is a tremendous burden to put on a person, and when it’s combined with knowledge of the impending collapse of all that we have known and loved it can be overwhelming for even the most well-adjusted people.

Making matters worse is the fact that discussing collapse can be very threatening to many people, and bringing it up around friends and family often results in social exclusion and the loss of friendships and support networks. Well-intentioned people who are trying to warn those they care about can end up becoming increasingly isolated as they are cut off from the usual sources of meaning and fulfillment.

That’s why it’s so important to develop coping mechanisms for dealing with knowledge of collapse. Even in the face of torture and death and the loss of all they held dear, people throughout human history have found ways to overcome fear and pain and sorrow by changing the way they perceive and understand the world. In the sections below we’ll touch on ways of doing that, ranging from the mundane to the metaphysical.

Standard Disclaimer

These are ideas, techniques and ways of thinking that I find useful. Your mileage may vary. You may completely disagree with what I have to say and think I am fooling myself and filling peoples’ heads with nonsense. If that’s the case, I hope you will keep in mind that the world is already full of nonsense and run by greedy idiots with nuclear weapons, so I doubt that a little more wishful thinking will do any extra harm, and it might actually help some people feel better once in a while. Also, please note that I am NOT encouraging anyone to consume substances that are illegal in their places of residence. Know the laws and follow them, to the best of your ability.

Drugs and Alcohol

Photograph of alcoholic drinks and a cannabis leaf
According to Homer Simpson, alcohol is both the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems. I wouldn’t exactly go that far, but since most of us are going to die early anyway, an occasional drink or a puff of pot won’t really make matters worse, either.

Drugs and alcohol are probably not the healthiest coping mechanisms we will discuss in this article, but they are definitely the most popular and widespread tools for dealing with existential angst and depression. Cannabis is exceptionally useful for relieving tension and anxiety, though of course that effect is lessened in places where its legal status causes side effects like paranoia and jail time. If you do happen to live in an area where it’s legal for adults to consume this wonderful plant, you might find that it helps considerably in making the frustrations of the world more tolerable. It is one of the few things that can turn otherwise traumatic events into opportunities for self-reflection and (eventually) humor.

Alcohol is considerably less healthy than cannabis and more prone to abuse, but it’s impossible to deny that it sometimes helps people get through times when all hope for the future seems to be lost. As with any recreational substance, if you choose to use it do so in moderation, and be aware that overuse and abuse can result in dependence, depression and death.

Psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, DMT, MDMA and Ketamine are not currently legal in most countries, but recent research suggests that these substances can be powerful agents for realigning perception and reducing symptoms of depression, PTSD, anxiety and fear of death. Some people report beneficial effects and powerful spiritual experiences while using these compounds, but potential psychonauts should keep in mind that these tools are not magic cure-alls, and they must be very cautious in choosing the appropriate times, places and companions in order to have positive experiences and not terrifying ones. Using these tools as party drugs or simply for recreation is risky at best and flat-out dangerous at worst. Treat them like the power tools they are, and take appropriate precautions if you plan to use them.

Psychological Techniques

In addition to the chemical coping tools we’ve briefly discussed, there are also several useful ways of thinking that can lessen the trauma and anxiety of staring into the abyss of collapse and potential extinction. As with anything else you read or watch, take all of this with a grain of salt and do your own research to find out more about ideas you’re unfamiliar with. I’m not insisting that any of this is the absolute Truth-with-a-capital-T, just suggesting that looking at the universe in a different way can really help lessen the trauma of living in this death-cult of a culture.

Modern Science

Illustration showing scientific equations against a colorful star field.
Science is an amazing tool, but don’t be fooled into thinking that we already have all the answers. Did you know that scientists used to think fire was caused by an imaginary substance called “phlogiston”? I shit you not. Look it up sometime if you want some laughs. (Click photo for wikipedia link.)

A fascinating part of learning about the process of scientific discovery is realizing that many of the ideas that are accepted as self-evident truths in one generation are often questioned, revised or completely discarded the next. In the 19th century, physicists described the universe in terms of Newtonian “billiard ball” physics and imagined that it was a sort of clockwork mechanism that produced life as an accidental byproduct of chemistry and physics. In the 20th century, the discovery of quantum mechanics made that model obsolete and required scientists to incorporate probability and knowledge of subatomic interactions into their worldviews.

For those unfamiliar with quantum mechanics, here’s a succinct description by Peter Brannen that appeared in The Atlantic:

Quantum mechanics, the remarkably successful and remarkably strange physics of the very small, makes predictions whose accuracy can be verified in the real world to an almost arbitrary number of decimal places. In other words, quantum mechanics provides the best description of how the world works at its most fundamental level. One of the most bewildering experimental results of quantum mechanics, and of the 20th century, is that particles seem to exist in a sort of probabilistic purgatory, existing everywhere at once and nowhere in particular, hazily spinning both clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time—that is, until they are observed. Once measured, these many possibilities collapse into one coherent result and the observer measures some specific value for a particle.

One of the leading interpretations of this quantum weirdness is that all of the possible realities for the particle that were winnowed away in this act of observation actually are realized somewhere in branching-off parallel universes, by observers in parallel universes—parallel universes just as real as the one in which we happen to live. Though the universe may be infinite in distance it may also be infinitely divergent in this sort of ontological zoo. This is called the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics. Again, this is not an unpopular or esoteric theory. It is one of the most widely subscribed interpretations of the peculiar world of quantum mechanics among physicists.

As we journey further into the 21st century, an even greater revision of scientific orthodoxy is taking place, and many physicists are beginning to acknowledge that ancient ideas about the malleable nature of space and time have much more validity than previously thought. We’ll talk more about that in the sections below.

Multiverse Theory

There is currently no definitive proof of the many-worlds interpretation, but it appears likely that our reality is a multiverse, meaning that there are many other dimensions and realities that exist alongside our own. In most cases these other dimensions are inaccessible to our senses and undetectable with current technology, but mathematically they appear to be essential for balancing the equations that most closely describe the physical properties of our universe. (Brian Greene’s book and TV series “The Elegant Universe” provides a great introduction to string theory and associated ideas, with accessible explanations and plenty of graphic illustrations.)

While we cannot travel to these other dimensions or interact with them through any known means, it can be comforting to imagine that somewhere out there other versions of Earth exist where humans have managed to create sustainable cultures and avoid self-inflicted extinction. (Personally, I like to imagine a version of Earth where Columbus and his conquistador buddies drowned before reaching America and left the thriving pre-contact Native American culture to develop independently of Europe for a few more centuries, but you’re welcome to stake out any plot of fantasy-land you like.)

Since there is no practical way to prove or disprove the existence of other realities, feel free to comfort yourself with any sort of alternate-Earth concept that strikes your fancy. In a truly infinite universe, as ours may very well be, literally every possible version exists somewhere or somewhen.

A Self-Aware Universe

Another interesting feature of the multiverse that is beginning to be more fully explored in recent years is the idea that consciousness may be non-local, meaning that it exists as a fundamental part of the fabric of the universe rather than as a byproduct of the nerves in our brains. Michael Talbot’s book “The Holographic Universe” is an excellent place to begin for readers interested in digging more deeply into this idea, but I will provide a brief summary below for those who just want a quick overview. I know this might sound ridiculous and nonsensical at first, but bear with me for a minute and I’ll explain why it appears to actually be true using some pretty straight-forward logical steps:

  • We will take it as given that if you are reading these words, you currently possess consciousness in some form.
  • You are (most likely) a human being from planet Earth, and your body and mind are made up of the same elements that make up the rest of the planet and all the creatures on it.
  • There is no fundamental difference (besides the order and number of base pairs) between human DNA and the DNA of all the other species that share our home, which means that we are not a special type of creation or subject to a different set of rules from everything else.
  • The elements that make up the planets (and our bodies) were created by physical and chemical processes in the hearts of stars billions of years ago, and they are endlessly recycled into new and different forms (sometimes “animate” forms like plants and animals and insects, sometimes “inanimate” forms like rocks and air and water).
  • Because everything that we are was created through natural processes, it is entirely accurate to think of ourselves as living, breathing embodiments of the entire system. We are all quite literally the universe reflecting on and perceiving itself.
  • Long-term observations and scientific studies of animals, plants, insects and fungi reveal that non-human creatures also possess consciousness in various forms, making it clear that human consciousness exists on a spectrum with other beings.
  • Since we are all part of the universe and we undeniably possess consciousness, it is not much of a stretch to recognize that consciousness is a natural and fundamental part of the universe itself.
  • In fact, consciousness appears to exist non-locally as a quantum field that is received and amplified by our brains rather than being generated within them.
An image showing scientific equations with two hands almost touching in reference to Mich
I know it sounds crazy at first, but you ARE the universe (at least one tiny little part of it) come to life in order to experience yourself. To paraphrase the late, great Alan Watts: We are each a small part of what the entire universe is doing in the same way that a single wave is part of what the whole ocean is doing.

Interestingly, the overall picture of the universe that emerges from an understanding of the points above closely resembles the worldviews of many ancient cultures and indigenous peoples. While all of these descriptive systems are unique in some ways, they also share many common aspects and understandings. Below is a brief summary of those shared traits.

Ancient Wisdom

A time-honored tradition in Western thought is stealing ideas from other cultures, dusting them off and presenting them as newly-minted nuggets of truth. I’m doing pretty much exactly that here, except that I’m trying to be up front about my sources by acknowledging that most of what follows doesn’t originate here. I’ll be borrowing heavily from concepts associated with Animism, Pantheism, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism and a bunch more -isms as well. The reason for doing so is that the people who contributed to these systems spent a hell of a long time seeking to understand what the fuck is going on in this crazy dimension, and after a great deal of thought (and occasional doses of entheogens) for the most part they seem to agree that our reality is something like a cosmic playground combined with an interdimensional role-playing game. Here’s a short clip that sums these ideas up pretty well:

Instead of seeing the universe as a mechanistic system set into motion by the Big Bang and slowly winding down toward total entropy and heat death, many intelligent and enlightened people have come to think of our reality as an experiential game being played by one or more beings so far beyond human experience that we might as well use the words “gods” or “the creators” to describe them. I don’t especially like either of those terms as they have been corrupted and infused with contradictory meanings, so I tend to use terms like “the great spirit(s),” “the universe” or “all that is.” If you don’t like those words, feel free to replace them with some of your own or borrow someone else’s terminology. We are less concerned here about the words themselves than we are with the concepts they are attempting to describe.

According to this worldview, the universe exists as part of a vast consciousness that manifests itself in an endless cycle of creation and destruction in which all beings participate as both actors and spectators. The divine is understood to be the active principle of the universe, the energy that inhabits all beings and literally becomes everything from the tiniest subatomic particles to the vast superclusters of galaxies. In this worldview, “god” is not thought of as separate from the universe, but is understood to be manifest in literally everything, taking on every role and creating infinite forms in order to have every possible experience. (After all, what else is there to do with eternity?)

In this way of thinking, concepts like “good” and “evil” don’t really apply, because the universe is playing all of the parts as a way of amusing Itself. One of the great benefits of this worldview is that death and extinction cease to be so frightening since consciousness is never extinguished, only recycled and reborn in different forms. That’s why indigenous peoples spoke of plants and animals as relatives and ancestors: they were not only recognizing our shared genetic heritage (which they knew about centuries before science caught up and made the same “discovery”), they were also explicitly acknowledging that the spark of life in those beings is the same spark that animates all of us.

Dialing It Back a Bit

Now you may be rolling your eyes pretty hard at this point depending on your background and upbringing, but keep in mind that up until a few decades ago humans didn’t even know how our own genetic material was encoded, let alone how life began in the first place. Scientists have made great strides in understanding the universe, but there is still plenty they don’t know and can’t explain. If you’re interested in finding out more about these concepts, even if just to disprove them to your own satisfaction, check out our Links and Sources page.

Also, please keep in mind that we are discussing psychological tools for coping with the inevitability of collapse and potential extinction. If you prefer to believe that the universe is inanimate and the existence of life is a cosmic accident soon to be corrected, be my fucking guest. When it comes right down to it I don’t really give a shit what you think. I’m just trying to get through the days like everybody else.

I’ve found the worldview described above to be scientifically accurate as well as emotionally comforting in the face of death and suffering, but if you get the same benefits out of nihilism or existentialism or some other -ism, then by all means keep doing what you’re doing. It does not matter the least little bit what any of us believe at this point. The outcome will be the same in any case.