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Dark forest.

Since recently I have been coming across the metaphor of black forest in different contexts and by different thinkers. The poetic quality and imaginative potential of this metaphor lured me into a contemplation inviting to have a walk inside a dark forest.

The original idea aims to answer a peculiar equation: why haven’t we heard from alien forms of life yet? There is a scientific concept proposing the existence of at least 20 civilisations in our cosmic neighbourhood. This possibility is precisely reasoned in the Drake equation, that takes into account multiple variables to reach the confusion. The dark forest theory, first laid out in a science fiction novel by Liu Cixin is an interesting proposition to explain this paradox, there is plenty of life around but we never meet. As the main desire of all life forms is to stay alive, engaging with the unknown is potentially dangerous. And as it is common for everything that is alive, nobody wants to take a first step and take risks. The best strategy would be to destroy the other before it gets a chance to do the same, just in case, as a preventive measure. We all have this risk-aversive self aren’t we? I do. Maintaining the status quo is meant to avoid danger, dark places, strangers and new experiences - unsettling and even existentially threatening.

If, we zoom in from the universe perspective to the individual experience, the metaphor still applies. The world is a dark forest full of alien creatures who want to challenge us, take us out of comfort and potentially even harm us. We better stay home and don’t show any signs of life. And in case we have to get in contact and the encounter with the unknown is unavoidable, the best option is either attack with defensiveness or pretend that we are dead, applying the strategy of non-engagement. And this is how this beautifully rich place we live in remains unexplored.

The biological wiring for being cautious in order to maximise the chances for survival, contradicts our social need for belonging. Otherness is scary but the desire to be accepted, with our own otherness, is stronger. To be seen in the darkness of the woods, means that we are not alone, it gives hope for survival. That is why we gather in groups, organise communities, build new paths in the woods, cut openings, lay electricity, build cities, organise countries. Slowly we expand the field of the unknown and by staying together the anxiety levels are going down. We build support structures and coping mechanisms to enable us to enter the unknown. We know that this is the only way we can keep life interesting. Challenges fortify us, expand horizons and tickle our nerves. We are afraid of darkness but also attracted to it. The unknown is dark and dangerous, but without a courageous sacrifice of comfort no new light can be made and no new strength can be built. Without showing ourself, we can not be seen, therefore we don’t exist. Except that we do. Look around.

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