Against the Virtue of Ash

At the Bay Area Winter Solstice this year, one of the major themes was something Cody Wild called “The Virtue of Ash”. (Text of Solstice 2018 can be found here.) The virtue of ash is, assuming I understand it right, the quality of enduring catastrophe and seeing your life in ruins around you and rebuilding anyway.

A friend of mine, who only recently moved to the area, was in attendance. When I asked him what he thought of Solstice, one of the first things he shared was “Holy scrupulosity triggers, Batman!”

I think these two facts are related.

On discussing it with some other friends, scrupulosity is not quite the right word. But I do believe the virtue of ash is harmful to promote, for the scrupulosity-like reasons that inspired my friend’s impression. And I feel fairly confident it is useless to cultivate.

First off, let’s set aside whether it’s useful to cultivate for the moment and consider whether it’s good to promote. Promoting the cultivation of the virtue of ash is exhorting people to consider what they’d do on the worst day of their lives, imagining the worst that could happen and trying to bend their mind to be someone who could handle that and keep going. It conveys a message that doing the best you can to make the future be bright is not enough; you should also be preparing for much darker futures where all your current plans lie in ruins, and to make those brighter. This hits at the anxious by raising the implicit standard for “doing enough” even higher. It also hits at the depressed by explicitly encouraging making highly depressing, dark outcomes mentally available.  Since the community being given this advice is already prone to anxiety, depression, and scrupulosity, this is a Bad Thing and should not be done without a clear reason to think the benefits are large. This year’s organizers may think those benefits are large, but if so I disagree.

So let’s proceed to why I disagree. My general thesis is that the person you are now and the person you will be after experiencing catastrophe are so different that trying to prepare is a fool’s errand.

Firstly, catastrophe is nearly always traumatic. Single catastrophic events cause PTSD even if life recovers quickly; ongoing catastrophes, like the civilization-scale events which could derail everything we now strive toward, cause PTSD but also “TSD”; the stress is not post-traumatic, it’s ongoing. Trauma changes a person, even if they learn to cope well; many people with PTSD feel there is a clear “before” and “after”, and only with difficulty, time, and help can they repair the things that broke. Needless to say, if there is a civilization-scale catastrophe we are unlikely to have adequate time or adequate help to fix our broken selves. By the standards of here and now, therapy is a necessity, but only because everything below it in Maslow’s hierarchy* is secure. If we lose mass production, transportation, and all the other infrastructure that secures material abundance in the developed world, therapy will be a luxury that we will be hard-pressed to afford.
In some ways this is a good thing; it is true only because our civilization is so robust that it can withstand very large shocks. 9/11, Katrina, Mount Saint Helens; large shocks that would most likely have decimated large parts of the country and still be felt for decades afterward if they hit our civilization two centuries ago. (Possibly even one century ago.) It is good to have a plan for what to do if, for example, another 7.0 or 8.0 earthquake hits San Francisco. But we know that we will recover; it may cause PTSD but there will, except for those few who die early on, be a “Post-“ to the trauma. New Orleans still has scars, but it’s still there; Mardi Gras came around and the show went on. But this means that the shocks that wouldn’t heal in a matter of years are very, very big. We would be in emergency mode for the foreseeable future, with no exit strategy.

Secondly, we are “sweet summer children”. We are the products of an easy life and comfortable circumstances. We have mental health issues (boy, do we have mental health issues), but we have never, by and large, experienced serious hardship. Even the best-steeled of us are not ready for ‘winter’, because we barely have any idea what it is like to experience it. I submit, in fact, that those who now prepare themselves for catastrophe and try to cultivate the virtue of ash would, if those circumstances arrived, find themselves no better prepared than those who did not, because they would be blown away by a scope much bigger than what they had (on an emotional and visceral level) expected and prepared for.

Even our picture of what sanity looks like might change; some maladaptive instincts in our current environment may be very much adaptive in a post-catastrophe environment, like anxiety. For my part, my social instincts are shaped by a trauma-born fear that to not constantly prove my worth to my tribe will cause me to be exiled and isolated forever; this would certainly be less maladaptive if every mouth to feed was difficult and all my skills (programming, mainly) were superfluous. Does this mean I should preserve this instinct, or at least the ability to drop into that mindset, in case of disaster? Of course not. It’s incredibly damaging to live in the sweet summer world with instincts like that, and unless the world would rest on my shoulders come winter it would not be worth it. Cut it out, cast it aside, and if it impedes your life now to remember how to re-integrate it throw away the key. Heal, grow, become a stronger person. If winter comes and there is new trauma to deal with, you will be better for having old traumas fixed as best you could.


Finally, a borrowed parable. In Asimov’s famous short story Nightfall, an alien civilization on a planet with six or seven suns and one small moon is facing an astronomical conjunction which will, for the first time in hundreds or thousands of years, cause night to fall. Excavation has revealed that there are periodic layers of ash coating the planet, with a very regular pattern that corresponds well to the recurrence period of this conjunction. Religious texts have predicted it as well, and speak of unearthly lights among the darkness, called “stars”, which drive all who see them mad.

A handful of brave young students perform a test, creating a dome which can be darkened with a dozen or two pinpricks in its skin which let light in, to test it. The species has a very strong fear of the dark, so the test is harrowing to endure, but they get through it, shaken but confident in their ability to ride out the night to come.

Then night comes. The sky gets darker and darker, and then eclipse begins and the night sky becomes visible, with all its millions and billions of stars.

And as the religious predicted, across the world the whole civilization becomes frenzied, burning anything they can get ahold of to drive back the terrifying evidence that the universe is vast and they are small. That they are not only not the center of the universe, but not special, one among an uncountably large number of others.

They go mad.

The brave students no less than those who did not prepare at all.

So if you seek to cultivate the virtue of ash, ask yourself: Are you staring the winter sky in the face, or are you in a dome with a dozen points of light?

3 thoughts on “Against the Virtue of Ash

  1. Footnote:
    *Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not actually a very good map of reality; reality has fuzzier boundaries and many different thresholds which are important. The gist is the same, though.


  2. > Promoting the cultivation of the virtue of ash is exhorting people to consider what they’d do on the worst day of their lives, imagining the worst that could happen and trying to bend their mind to be someone who could handle that and keep going.

    I don’t think this is necessarily a Bad Thing for depressed people? It almost sounds like you’re describing the thing that Dialectical Behavioral Therapy calls “coping ahead”. (Described in more detail here:


  3. Unless you have endured great hardshp its presumptuous to assume to assume you would endure the winter. But I think its also very presumptuous to assume others would fail. Normal people, even modern ‘sweet summer children’, have risen to the occasion and survived in fairly extreme conditions. Of course many others failed to survive. My main emotional reaction to this post is ‘speak for yourself’.

    I also have a comment on the nightfall story. Many humans have provably been able to remain calm under truely extreme conditions. One of the more extreme examples is that at least some people are able to remain clam while burning themselves to death. This is plausibly comparable to the pychological pressure the Aliens experienced when they saw ‘night’. Maybe a lesson here is that if you need to maintain your sanity a one night experiment won’t do it. But it is possible to train yourself to maintain sanity and even equanimity under extreme conditions. This is also certainly possible for ‘sweet summer children’.


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