What to do when Weirdness Happens To You [Trenchant Edges]
In case of Ontological Emergency Break Glass
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, where we try to see outside convention without losing our heads.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 52 seconds. Contains 1574 words
I’m Stephen, Virgil to your Dante, and today we’re going to take a moment to try and zoom out and encompass everything we’ve been speaking of on this newsletter.
When trying to understand High Weirdness, in someone else’s life or yours, it can be helpful to understand the high-level options for how to contextualize such outlier events.
Contextualizing High Weirdness
Context is the top-level framework a person uses to explain their world and their place in it. Actually, before we go any further I should say something about levels.
When I say “levels” in this context (heh), I mean “levels of abstraction”. At the bottom, you have mechanics. Gear X inserts into Gear Y. As you move away from the concrete details, things get simpler and the concepts get broader.
High abstraction ideas are often completely untethered to the material world. They’re free-floating speculation, like advanced mathematics or Avant-Garde poetry. High-level abstractions are useful because they’re very transferable from one idea domain to another and because they simplify very complex systems.
If you understand the principle of leverage (“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” - Archimedes), you not only know how to move heavy objects with relatively little effort but have a principle that can allow you to prevail in hostile negotiations or understand the nuances of geopolitics in a new way.
The danger of high-level abstractions is it’s easy to over-generalize or to apply abstraction to a domain it’s inappropriate to.
This is what happens when someone gets into conspiratorial thinking and lets their paranoia control their perceptions. Everything becomes part of the plot and the conspiracy moves from some time-bound, hypothesis about the secret plans of a specific group to metaphysical speculation about the nature of the world.
This is the goal of many political organizations: To see their enemies as defacto bad and plotting against them and to define those enemies as broadly as possible.
So, what does all this mean for context?
Context is a kind of abstraction. It’s sort of a living hallucination of what an individual thinks is happening in the world. I say hallucination because context is felt, but it’s not really anchored to anything beyond belief. It’s a kind of simulation.
Maybe the most cliched High Weirdness trope in our culture is the person who has the profound experience and decides or discovers themselves to be the messiah. This can be frustrating and tragic like with antisemite and cryptofascist David Icke, rad as fuck as with Farmer John Griggs, or just funny like the friend who asked mushrooms what he should do with his life and was told, “Make more mushrooms.”
(He now owns and runs a mushroom farm)
Farmer John, incidentally, tried acid in the early 1960s and immediately decided he was the acid messiah and it was his mission to bring LSD-25 to as many people as possible so he turned on his greaser friends and they built one of the modern world’s first international drug cartels, The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. But that’s a happy story with a sad ending for another time.
To say that High Weirdness can alter the course of someone’s life is an understatement. And this is the mechanic it works through: Forcing a person to adopt a broader context to adapt to the new experience they’ve had.
I mocked up a quick 2x2 matrix of the ways you can change your context if you’re coming from a modern, western perspective:
So on one axis, we have Materialism and Antimaterialism and on the other, we have Acceptance and Rejection.
Our default public metaphysics is Materialism, which now influences even the way non-materialist ideologies like liberalism and Christianity discuss the world.
These are defaults because of the great success of institutionalized and professionalized empirical natural philosophy. Or, you know, Science.
Which is arguably the most successful project in human history, despite some janky flaws.
It’s certainly the most successful part of the Enlightenment Rationalist project, which sought to reform all of society along rational lines and completely eliminate the need for faith.
This was an anti-clerical movement trying to reduce the power of the church and many of its assumptions have continued to seep through history to us today. But that’s another topic.
The Rationalist project wanted to make the world more legible to everyone. But the scientific revolution has produced something counter-intuitive: A world where no person, no matter how much they work or how smart they are, can understand everything.
Rationalism has created a world where faith in complex, unseen forces is the natural result of living as heavily mediated and curated systems stack invisibly without end.
So the human hardware for the faith continues to be used and strengthened even on a purely neurological level.
All of this is important preamble for our little matrix because it’s the reason we’re so susceptible to large context changes.
Let’s make this clear with a story: Sonya is a 31-year-old software developer working in Savannah Georgia for a useless tech start-up. They like loose leaf tea and cats. They’re not really happy or particularly unhappy, just going along.
One day they take too many mushrooms on a dare and spend 8 hours conversing with the 8 armed infinite form of Dolly Parton, who detailed the many secrets of the universe and seemed to want Sonya to share them.
So when they sober up, Sonya’s going to have some hard questions.
Perhaps more than the others, “What the fuck was that?” might be in order. Dolly Parton, after all, is alive and well and bringing joy to many homes and minimum wage to Dollywood line workers.
What are Sonya’s options?
The easiest and safest option is to just write that off as too much drugs and move on. A lot of fringe people get made when people default to this one but I’ve long since come to appreciate it as a clear expression of wanting to focus on more tangible challenges.
But what if that experience felt so freeing and clarifying that Sonya feels drawn to engage and understand it more?
Can they even remember what happened? Probably not. Details are notoriously sketchy with psychedelic trips as relatively little gets encoded into long-term memory.
But maybe they have enough to extrapolate.
Sonya might be able to tell themselves a story about how exciting their 5-HT2A serotonin receptor caused their default mode network to reorganize, enabling unusual parts of the brain to communicate with each other and granting them access to novel information skewed with comforting imagery of Hindu gods and counter music legends.
Now, if Infinite Dolly’s revelations are any good this might not bother Sonya enough to reject the experience. Perhaps they write it up and fictionalize it in their email newsletter.
Or maybe not.
Sonya can also just take the experience at face value: Dolly Parton has ascended to divinity a little early and wants to communicate universal truths to some software dev instead of using her own massive global platform. It’s a bit gauche to be the one to declare yourself a god after all.
And plus this proves that Dolly’s power and grace can touch anyone in a way that simply sharing universal truths on the ‘gram would never do.
But if Sonya’s got the wrong kind of skeptical mind, perhaps they take Dolly’s appearance as the godhead while alive as a red flag.
If “Dolly” is lying about being “Dolly”, what else are they lying about? Why should Sonya trust them? What if those New Universal Truths are actually just a new way to control people to some strange esoteric end?
And if this “Dolly” intelligence is working towards such nefarious purposes, who else might be a part of it?
So, we can see how Sonya could become several different people depending on how they parse this one experience. From the prophet of a new religion to a gibbering paranoid and everything in between.
Some decisions are traps.
Now, from Sonya’s point of view how they decide to handle this experience is less important than having an explanation. Though, the how will determine a great many things about their experience from now on.
But that’s a function of who and not what.
Maybe Sonya really is the chosen prophet to bring a message that will finally unite humanity. You don’t know. >_>
Now, Sonya could also just kinda try to forget the whole thing and hope repression doesn’t have any unusual consequences down the line.
Maybe that’d work out here in a way that wouldn’t be possible if the experience was more traumatic and less a cartoon.
Even good experiences can be exhausting or shredding, especially if you’re unprepared as Sonya was. And any of these experiences can press someone’s obsession or addiction buttons.
With apologies to Dolly Parton, who didn’t ask to be part of this.
The questions I’d ask myself in this kind of situation are:
What’s the least I can say with absolute certainty?
What could I believe about what happened here?
If I believe [each answer from #2], who will I become? What other consequences of that belief will there be?
All other things being equal, who do I want to be because of this?
That’s good for now
Alright, we’ll be back tomorrow.
I got an email back from Chuck Zukowski and he’s open to an interview. So I think we’re going to bounce a few emails back and forth and see if we can develop a bit of a rapport.
We’ll see where that goes.