Small and Vulnerable
post by deluks917
Anyone who is dedicating the majority of their time or money to Effective Altruism needs to ask themselves why. Why not focus on enjoying life and spending your time doing what you love most? Here is my answer:
I have a twin sister but neither of us had many other friends growing up. From second to fifth grade we had none. From sixth to eighth we had one friend. As you might guess I was bullied quite badly. Multiple teachers contributed to this. Despite having no friends my parents wanted us to be normal. They pressured me to play sports with the boys in the neighborhood. I was unable to play with an acceptable level of skill and was not invited to the games anyway. But we were still forced to go 'play outside' after school. We had to find ways to kill time. Often we literally rode our bicycles in a circle in a parking lot. We were forced to 'play outside' for hours most days and even longer on weekends. I was not even allowed to bring a book outside though sometimes I would hide them outside at night and find them the next day. Until high school, I had no access to the internet. After dinner, I could watch TV, read and play video games. These were the main sources of joy in my childhood.
Amazingly my mom made fun of her children for being weirdos. My sister used to face a wall and stim with her fingers when she was overwhelmed. For some reason, my mom interpreted this as 'OCD'. So she made up a song titled 'OCD! Do you mean me?' It had several verses! This is just one, especially insane, example.
My dad liked to 'slap me around. He usually did not hit me very hard but he would slap me in the face all the time. He also loved to call me 'boy' instead of my name. He claims he got this idea from Tarzan. It took me years to stop flinching when people raised their hands or put them anywhere near my face. I have struggled with gender since childhood. My parents did not tolerate even minor gender nonconformity like growing my hair out. I would get hit reasonably hard if I insisted on something as 'extreme' as crossing my legs 'like a girl in public. I recently started HRT and already feel much better. My family is a lot of the reason I delayed transitioning.
If you go by the checklist I have quite severe ADHD. 'Very often' seemed like an understatement for most of the questions. My ADHD was untreated until recently. I could not focus on school or homework so trying to do my homework took way too much time. I was always in trouble in school and considered a very bad student. It definitely hurts when authority figures constantly, and often explicitly, treat you like a fuck up and a failure who can't be trusted. But looking back it seems amazing I was considered such a bad student. I love most of the subjects you study in school! When I finally got access to the internet I spent hours per day reading Wikipedia articles. I still spend a lot of time listening to lectures on all sorts of subjects, especially history. Why were people so cruel to a little child who wanted to learn things?
Luckily things improved in high school. Once I had more freedom and distance from my parents my social skills improved a huge amount. In high school, I finally had internet access which helped an enormous amount. My parents finally connected our computer at home to the internet because they thought my sister and I needed it for school. I also had access to the computers in the high school library. By my junior year in high school, I was not really unpopular. Ironically my parent's overbearing pressure to be a 'normal kid' probably prevented me from having a social life until I got a little independence. Sadly I was still constantly in trouble in school throughout my high school years.
The abuse at home was very bad. But, to be honest, the absolute worst part of my childhood and adolescence was the constant sleep deprivation. Even at thirty years old I cannot handle getting up early; I rarely wake before nine-thirty. A year ago I briefly had to be awake at six-thirty for work. I felt terrible all day and could not think straight. When I was younger I had an even stronger need to sleep in but I had to be in school before eight. People were amazed at my ability to fall into a deep sleep in the middle of a loud classroom. Unless someone woke me up I would just stay asleep at my desk. This was a horrible experience and surely terrible for my brain. I got a break from this torment during the summers but I didn't really escape until I made it to college.
Obviously, I was an outlier in many respects. But many people are outliers in some important respects. They still deserve an environment that is healthy and lets them flourish. I wanted to learn all sorts of things. But instead of helping me, the school system tortured me and permanently damaged my brain. No one deserves to be treated like that.
We should not frame this in terms of my parents being aberrations. I live in the United States. Many groups here normalize far more extreme repression and physical punishment. In some subcultures, my parent's behavior is considered unacceptable. But much of what happened to me is still normalized. Even supposedly liberal parents are often terrible to trans children. Society isn't going to stop sleep-depriving children anytime soon. And there are many people being severely mistreated in very different circumstances.
I cannot get my childhood back, can't go back in time and transition earlier, and if my brain was harmed the damage is permanent. Whatever other traumas I have won't fully heal. But I eventually got out. There are millions of people in prison, trapped in abusive nursing homes, or starving in Yemen. There are many more animals on farms. Those people haven't escaped yet and it is unclear they will ever escape to somewhere safe. Society never should have normalized what happened to me and we shouldn't normalize what is happening to them. This is an emergency.
When I was small and vulnerable I needed help. For the most part, no help came. I was forced to stew in boredom and misery until I grew bigger, stronger, and accorded more respect. It is always hard to compare experiences. But I know what it's like to spend about a decade miserable, knowing you are being mistreated and being unable to defend yourself. Maybe one day I will again be unable to defend myself because I am sick or in prison. But for now, I am relatively healthy and free. I cannot just abandon the people and animals who are still trapped. Every day I try to imagine them somehow watching me and I ask whether they would think I forgot them. I hope I never forget. I hope my actions always show I have forgotten neither my past nor their present.
This post also appeared on my blog.
Comments sorted by top scores.
comment by romeostevensit ·
2021-05-03T16:31:36.892Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Every day I try to imagine them somehow watching me and I ask whether they would think I forgot them.
As someone who also had ADHD and a terrible upbringing and can relate to a bunch of the anecdotes in the post...I think this is unhealthy and something to work on. Believing that being miserable is virtuous is an aspect of trauma. Believing your trauma can never be fixed is an aspect of learned helplessness that is itself a trauma.
Replies from: hamnox
↑ comment by hamnox ·
2021-05-04T12:18:30.184Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Correct. Though the latter depends on what someone means by "never be fixed"; trauma is always going to leave a mark but it does not have to remain debilitating nor defining.
comment by Maxwell Peterson (maxwell-peterson) ·
2021-05-03T18:37:05.470Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Even at thirty years old I cannot handle getting up early; I rarely wake before nine-thirty. A year ago I briefly had to be awake at six-thirty for work. I felt terrible all day and could not think straight.
I’m 30 too and have struggled with this since forever and just started a month ago taking melatonin at 5pm as suggested on SlateStarCodex’s melatonin guide. I often wake up without an alarm now at 8:30a or so, but more strikingly, no longer feel tired until mid-afternoon like I used to.
Probably you have heard this already and possibly you are annoyed to hear it again but this part of the post was too familiar to me to not say anything!
Replies from: romeostevensit
comment by Viliam ·
2021-05-03T16:39:33.656Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Wow, this was... intense.
Once I had more freedom and distance from my parents my social skills improved a huge amount. [...] Ironically my parent's overbearing pressure to be a 'normal kid' probably prevented me from having a social life until I got a little independence.
I guess, pretending to be a normie when you are not, is not really going to fool anyone; the normies have a keen sense to recognize their own. If you are being yourself instead, it makes you authentic, and interesting for some people (and the remaining ones would probably not be impressed with your normie roleplaying either).
I wonder how much the secret to successful social life is finding your bubble. For the outliers, the answer seems obvious. But even people in the middle probably feel better with other people in the middle... it's just that being in the middle usually isn't called a "bubble", and their bubble is larger and easier to find.
Even at thirty years old I cannot handle getting up early; I rarely wake before nine-thirty.
Does it depend on when you go to sleep? Or is it impossible for you to fall asleep sooner?
comment by Vladimir_Nesov ·
2021-05-03T18:17:05.066Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
This is the kind of thing that feels compelling, but emphasizes a wrong level of abstraction. Personal experience of suffering is not the reason why suffering is bad. It's a bit like professing that two plus two is four because the teacher says so. The teacher is right, but there is a reason they are right that is more important than the fact that they are saying this. Similarly, personal suffering is compelling for the abstract conclusion of altruism, but there is a reason it's compelling that is more important as a consideration for this conclusion than the fact of experience. Someone with no personal experience of suffering should also be moved by that consideration.
Replies from: maxwell-peterson, Davidmanheim, 4thWayWastrel
↑ comment by Maxwell Peterson (maxwell-peterson) ·
2021-05-03T18:50:15.784Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I don’t really get EA at an emotional level and this post helps give someone like me an... emotional intuition pump?... in a way that other EA posts do not do for me. I think it’s good that it is at the level of abstraction it is at.
Replies from: Vladimir_Nesov
↑ comment by Vladimir_Nesov ·
2021-05-03T19:27:48.110Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
The intuition pump does live at this level of abstraction, but it's a separate entity from the abstract consideration it's meant to illustrate, which lives elsewhere. My disagreement is with how the first paragraph of the post frames the rest of it. Personal or vicarious experience of trauma is not itself a good reason for pursuing altruism, instead it's a compelling intuition pump for identifying the reason to do so. Some behaviors resulting from trauma are undesirable, and it's the abstract consideration of what motivates various induced behaviors that lets us distinguish justified takeaways of experience from pathological ones. Altruism could've been like flinching when people raise a hand, so there should be an opportunity to make this distinction, as opposed to unconditionally going along with the induced behavior.
↑ comment by Davidmanheim ·
2021-05-04T12:03:48.034Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Someone with no personal experience of suffering should also be moved by that consideration.
That sounds like a fantastic reason for someone with that experience to post it, as occurred here, as a way to explain what it is like to others.
In fact, only the existence of suffering for some concrete individual justifies the abstract conclusion of altruism. Without that concrete level, the abstraction is hypothetical, and should not provide the same level of reason to be altruistic.
↑ comment by 4thWayWastrel ·
2021-05-05T12:32:33.700Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I find this sentiment a little confusing, as it seems to me the subjective experience of suffering is the ultimate bedrock of any idea that understands suffering as bad? If I had no personal experience of suffering or wellbeing I can't imagine how something like utilitarianism might move me.Replies from: Vladimir_Nesov
Or are you saying while yes ultimately an abstract understanding of suffering rests on a subjective experience of it, pumping the understanding of the subjective experience won't lead to more understanding of it in the abstract in the way EA needs to?
↑ comment by Vladimir_Nesov ·
2021-05-07T14:47:38.274Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
There is never native ultimate bedrock with human minds that has any clarity to it. Concepts for how people think are mostly about cognitive technology that someone might happen to implement in their thinking, they become more reliably descriptive only at that point. All sorts of preferences and especially personal pursuits are possible, without a clear/principled reason they develop. The abstract arguments I'm gesturing at amplify/focus a vague attitude of "suffering is bad", which is not rare and doesn't require any particular circumstances to form, into actionable recommendations.
comment by hamnox ·
2021-05-04T12:16:26.132Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
We were forced to 'play outside' for hours most days and even longer on weekends. I was not even allowed to bring a book outside though sometimes I would hide them outside at night and find them the next day.
Oh stars, this gives me flashbacks. Being forced outside was the worst.
Amazingly my mom made fun of her children for being weirdos.
My mom was also a bigger bully than I ever encountered at school or in the neighborhood, figuratively and literally. It looms even larger in my head, because I had to give a damn about what the person in charge of my life thought.
ps. fiskkit review, it's a thing I'm trying out.
comment by Sunny from QAD (Evan Rysdam) ·
2021-05-10T05:01:37.670Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
This is a lovely post and it really resonated with me. I've yet to really orient myself in the EA world, but "fix the normalization of child abuse" is something I have in my mind as a potential cause area. Really happy to hear you've gotten out, even if the permanent damage from sleep deprivation is still sad.
comment by Vanilla_cabs ·
2021-05-07T20:22:57.204Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
This reminds me, it's been years since I last checked the progress of laws against corporal punishment of children.
It brings me back to another period of my life. I would talk about it a lot around me, but ended up having very little impact.
AFAIK, it's an other class of problems than the ones EA solves. EA tends to focus on consensual and scalable problems where money has an obvious way of being used. Because money has more impact in poorer countries, the typical problem is something like "we need money to build wells in Sahel", as opposed to "we need to pass this controversial law in the US".