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Watching a New Egregore Coming to Life

Where should one look for evidence of an emerging egregore?  Of various criteria indicating extraterrestrial or super-natural life—growth may be the easiest to demonstrate.  Besides obvious markers like increasing size and number, an investigator might also look for anxiety and resistance in the social environment, a response to the newcomer’s expanding presence. 

We read in the media warnings about the growing strength—in numbers and political influence—of the movement called QAnon.1  Twitter recently pulled more than 150,000 QAnon related accounts, and Facebook identified thousands of active QAnon groups and pages at its site.  Since 2017 QAnon has developed a strong presence on Facebook, YouTube and Discord.   Progressives have begun a jeremiad to discredit QAnon by exaggerating its more extremist conspiracy ideas, including the president’s fight against a secret organization of Satanic pedophiles in media and government, the suspicion that Covid-19 was created by the “deep state”, birtherism, U.F.Os, and so forth.  But one person’s conspiracy may be another’s evangelism.

Go to recent political developments and one can see other aspects of a viable egregore, namely reproduction and irritability.  QAnon now supports dozens of candidates in state and national primaries, one of whom—Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia—is favored to win in the general election.2 Cross-pollination of QAnon memes with established political and social organizations has helped the movement to multiply rapidly.  QAnon slogans appear in Texas Republican Party materials, and the president has reportedly retweeted QAnon followers at least 201 times.  Political leaders who criticize the movement or warn of its growing clout are beginning to receive some pushback on line.

One example of irritability—how the life form behaves in the presence of noxious environmental stimuli—may be the movement’s online response to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  Deemed to be insufficiently supportive of the president’s approach to the pandemic, and possibly compromised by previous interactions with the Obama administration, Fauci has been accused by QAnon of being a member of the aforementioned cabal of Satanic child abusers, and even a creator of the coronavirus.  These and other extremist communications have led the Justice Department to provide heightened security measures for him.3    

We don’t yet know if QAnon will last beyond 2020, since it seems inextricably mixed with current politics.  Its focus is clearly tied to the outcome of the presidential election, often cast in apocalyptic imagery by QAnon’s followers.  Yet the message—and there may be more than one—is broader than politics.  Some of the content suggests a religious sensibility.  Followers await “The Great Awakening”, an idea with religious and historical significance in America.  The worshipful attention given its leader’s pronouncements approaches idolatry. 

Go back to the beginning of QAnon, and one sees elements comparable to traditional egregoric phenomena.  QAnon’s genesis is obscure, but may have come about in October 2017 when the mysterious “Q”, its prophet and progenitor, began making “Q drops”.  These were veiled messages to followers on 4chan4, given scriptural authority by a source with supposed access to high level government intelligence.  Harassed by the establishment, Q migrated to various platforms, limiting detection using a secret passcode known only to the enlightened.  QAnon has a litany of acronyms, slogans, and themes to be chanted, even digital oath-taking to catechize neophytes.  It has its own merchandise.  Is this not a religion with its own object of worship?

All that is needed for an egregore like QAnon to manifest is a polarized society bereft of a shared reality.  A mysterious prophet can then articulate the nature of the movement and direct its worshipful attention towards growth and materialization. Skillful use of the internet can expedite this evangelism, quickened by the apocalyptic unfolding of a pandemic.  Most of all, the new egregore needs attention.  As I write this, another horrified editorial in this morning’s New York Times exhorts us to pay attention to this movement—which is exactly what it needs to survive and grow.

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1See for examples “From Far Right to Election Night: QAnon Gaining at Ballot Box”, NYT, 8/14/20 and “More in G.O.P. Speak the Language of QAnon”, NYT, 8/21/20.

2QAnon’s early political successes have been compared to the start of the Tea Party circa 2009.  

3 “The Prophecies of Q” by Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic June 2020.  A helpful analysis from the perspective of the liberal media.

4This may constitute a “naming event”, a kind of conjuration that brought it into being, and provided an object of focus.

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But Are They Alive?

Railing against what he saw as the stupidity of making and worshipping idols, the unknown author of Psalm 135 describes how “They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, nor is their breath in their mouths.”1 And the prophet Jeremiah—from whom the pejorative term jeremiad2 is derived—has this to say: 

“For the customs of the people are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.  They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.  Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk.  Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.”3

An image fashioned of raw materials—or digital media for that matter—is demonstrably lifeless, but is this the complete reality?  As any pious heathen or pagan knows, an idol isn’t the object of worship itself.  It’s a tangible symbol, a reminder, a marker of sacred space with which to focus the believer’s attention, similar to statues in a Catholic church or those adorning a national monument.

Jeremiah and others over the centuries may underestimate the power of supposedly lifeless, impotent statues.  Then as now, why must so many be defaced and torn down, their followers “put to the sword”, if indeed idols and statues are lifeless?  It’s because a viable faith, combined with disciplined, concentrated worship, sacrifice and dedication of material resources is still effective:  it can invoke and sustain an entity, giving it a seemingly independent existence.

If the statues are not alive, what about the entities or egregores that they represent? 

Scientists, in particular, exobiologists have developed a set of criteria for determining whether extraterrestrial phenomena can be considered indicative of a life form.4 The basic requirements are a capacity for growth, movement, irritability, reproduction and metabolism.  Yet because extraterrestrial—and conceivably, supernatural—life forms may not resemble familiar terrestrial biology, criteria have been broadened to capture phenomena that may not exhibit what is easily perceived as life

Another requirement recently proposed is that the life form be able to store and transfer information—typically, but not necessarily, in the form of macromolecules that convey genetic and metabolic coding.

Do egregores exhibit any or all the attributes of a living organism?  It seems that they do, and in ways that are quantifiable.  In an earlier post it was suggested that energy consumption could be measured indirectly, through diversion of material resources, money, labor, time and space as sustenance—a kind of socially mediated metabolism.  Other examples of lifelike attributes will be discussed in future posts.

1Psalm 135, NIV.

2 “…a prolonged lamentation or complaint; also: a cautionary or angry harangue” according to Webster’s.  It may also be a typical establishment response to an emerging or competitive egregoric phenomenon.

3Jeremiah 10: 3-5, NIV.

4An Analysis of the Extraterrestrial Life Detection Problem, by Richard S. Young, Robert B. Painter, and Richard D. Johnson.

The Uncanniness of Online Meeting Platforms

Like millions of other people, I have been conducting much of my life “remotely” these days, using online meeting platforms like Zoom, GoToMeeting and the like.  At first the experience reminded me of that TV show from the 60s and 70s, The Hollywood Squares1a human Tic Tac Toe game enlivened by amusing repartee among celebrity contestants.

Family gatherings, our local science fiction/fantasy book group, my job, and even church now depend on these video conferencing technologies.  As with many changes in society, this development was accelerated by the pandemic, and since March has become commonplace for many.  If you step back from it though, there is something odd about the experience.

The visual aspect of a Zoom or GoToMeeting session is strange.  Depending on the size of your gathering, fellow guests are confined to boxes that range in size from that of postcards to matchbooks or smaller.  I’ve attended large business meetings where the participants were reduced to the size of postage stamps—an animated organizational chart. 

With the reduction in size is also a diminishment of other parts of normal human communication: gesture, eye contact, nonverbal vocalizations, (“Please put yourselves on mute.”).  These are the signals we give each other to manage conversational turn-taking, and which often carry the whale of our communicative intent.

The weirdest part of the experience is seeing yourself in one of those boxes, another “you” paying attention—or not—while the other crated personalities try to get a word in edgewise.  Could this other “you” be a double, a doppelgänger?  Or perhaps you become an avatar, as the new technology transforms your 3d form into something recognizable, but not quite the same.  (Isn’t it jarring to see real versions of friends after interacting with them virtually for so long?)

Author Margot Harrison touches on this uncanniness in a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review.2 She describes how she found it challenging to write psychological horror about technology.  Typical horror stories evoke the terror of being alone and isolated, while communication technologies emphasize connectedness with others. However, she feels that the anxiety and uncanniness inherent in “…the liminal space between presence and absence, reality and unreality…” can be a source of inspiration for such literature. 

In her essay she references two key studies of what we might call the egregoric, Sigmund Freud’s famous 1919 essay The Uncanny, and Arthur Koestler’s influential 1967 book, The Ghost in the Machine. Both will likely be part of future discussions here.3 Harrison suggests that what horror lurks in online meetings has more to do with human compulsions and loneliness than the technology itself.     

We shape new technologies which in turn shape us.  There is talk of how working and meeting remotely is ending the need for offices, buildings, commuting, and centralized economic activity.  This may reduce the need for cities, at least as we know them now.  As our physical landscape dramatically changes, how will the uncanniness of social networking impact society and the individual soul? 

1See https://gameshows.fandom.com/wiki/Hollywood_Squares.

2“The Horror of Connection” by Margot Harrison, New York Times Book Review, 7/26/20.

3Along with Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966) and others.

The Social Construction of Serial Killers

The last post discussed a horrific school shooting in Oregon some years back.  In retrospect the event seemed to be mediated in part by an internet subculture, a “fraternity of shooters”.  The eerie invocation of the name of an earlier mass murderer suggested an egregoric process of some sort, and one broadly active in society.

Writing in the mid-1990s, Mark Seltzer, a professor of English at Cornell, attempted to describe the nature of the serial killer.1 He was struck by the banality of Thomas Dillon, a civil servant who murdered five men in Ohio and who wrote letters to a local newspaper about his activities.  Seltzer suggested that the creation of such a being develops from an interplay between the social construction of the idea “serial killer”, and the individual predisposed to become one. 

Seltzer described how the term first came into use in the mid-1970s, the result of a “naming event”, which involved “…the positing of a category or type of person as a sort of point of attraction around which a range of acts, effects, fantasies, and representations then begin to orbit.”  One can see this naming event as laying the groundwork for a socially mediated invocation of a particular kind of being, egregoric in nature.

Following this naming event, individuals who lack a coherent sense of self may emulate the name, and begin to exhibit its powers, habits and characteristics.  Seltzer remarked that attempts to analyze and explain the motives of the typical serial killer have been problematic. He observed that “one sees the uncanny intimation that the killer’s private compulsion is nothing but these public accountings of the subject, turned outside in.”

One of the insights offered by Seltzer is that society and the monstrous individuals it contains engage in symbiotic relationships, creating conditions favorable for a serial killer to emerge, and that sustain his existence.  He calls this engagement “wound culture”. 

Wound culture has emerged through a combination of several developments in society over the past few decades.  One of these is “the emergence of psychology as public culture”.  Wound culture includes the preoccupation with self-help and self-actualization on a personal and societal level—bringing to mind such notions as “future shock”, “the culture of narcissism, “Prozac nation”, “trauma culture” and so forth.

Related to this is the increasing dissolution of boundaries between private and public life, the transformation of life into simulations of life patterned on media imagery, and the confusion of reality and fantasy. Looking back decades later, Seltzer seems to have anticipated the impact of social media on individual identity, and on a socially shared sense of reality. 

In the case of the serial killer, the psychologically empty individual is able to fashion a self—one capable of horrific violence–out of the “acts, effects, fantasies, and representations” supplied by society through various media.  Seltzer notes that serial killers often read books about fictional serial killers—books modelled on events involving real serial killers.  It becomes difficult to distinguish the individual killer from the image—really, an idol—that society creates for him to emulate.  Did one come before the other?

The serial killer is an extreme example of a more general egregoric process—the conjuring and sustaining of social phenomena that seem to have an existence separate from the minds that create them.    

1“The Serial Killer as a Type of Person”, an extract from Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture, by Mark Seltzer, in The Horror Reader (2000), edited by Ken Gelder.

Internetromancy

In his book about Lovecraft’s influence on occult traditions1, John L. Steadman defines an egregore as an entity intentionally created by a black “magickian” for a specific purpose.  This willful creation of the egregore is accomplished either by evocation or invocation.

During an evocation, the practitioner summons the entity. This is done by implanting the image and of the egregore in the subconscious mind, energizing this image through specific rituals, and sending the entity on toward whatever task was planned for it to accomplish.  An invocation is different.  Here the practitioner in some sense becomes the entity.  He or she identifies with its nature, achieves a kind of unity with it, and for a time demonstrates its powers and characteristics.

Though familiar, this view of the evocation or invocation of egregoric phenomena seems incomplete.  Can’t egregores be unintentionally created, manifested by accident?  This occurs often in horror literature and film, a familiar trope.  More broadly, the concept of the egregore is applicable to a variety of phenomena that we experience collectively, in society.

Egregores are probably source material for gods, ghosts, demons and other supernatural beings.  Surely it is the inspiration for idolatry, a recurrent horror of the Old Testament.   But egregores appear in disturbing secular experiences as well:  extremist political movements, xenophobia, and celebrity cults, among others.  Insofar as they influence collective human behavior, egregores are potentially very powerful, even dangerous. 

Several years ago NPR broadcast an interview with Malcom Gladwell, who spoke on the sociology of mass shooters.  He was asked to comment about the mass shooting at Umqua Community College in Oregon, in which ten people were killed, including the murderer, who took his own life.  (The event occurred October 1, 2015.)

Gladwell described a theory related to riot behavior called “the hundredth shooter”.  According to the theory the first shooter is the most radical and charismatic.  However, by the time of the hundredth shooter, the act has become ritualized, and what emerges is a “fraternity of shooters”.  While the first shooter may have been a sociopath with severe mental and emotional problems, the hundredth shooter, while somewhat deviant, is not as extreme or distinguishable. 

Gladwell went on to discuss Eric Harris, who with another student committed the horrible Columbine murders.  Gladwell quoted the young man who shot the people at Umqua as saying “Eric Harris is in my head”.  What could this mean?  Gladwell observed that posts on social media emulating Eric Harris were numerous at the time of the Umqua shootings—perhaps a kind of “internetromancy”.  Another disturbing fact about the Umqua murders is that the perpetrator asked several of the victims to name their respective religions before he shot them to death.

As we know, there have been similar and equally horrific events since the mass in Oregon five years ago—many.  Is this a type of egregore, sustained in the minds of isolated, emotionally unstable young men?  It’s chilling to think that social media inadvertently creates a way for an egregoric version of a mass murderer to be invoked and re-invoked.

1 H.P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition (2015)

Egregore “Energy”, Attention and Cost

In the last post I briefly examined competition between egregores, with examples taken from the Hebrew Testament and the New Testament. 

The book of Isaiah records the ongoing struggle of the ancient Israelites to avoid the distraction and assimilation of rival belief systems, a dynamic that continued for millennia.  The situation in Ephesus, where the Apostle Paul’s evangelical efforts threatened the local silversmith business (Acts 19: 23-27), shows what can happen when a competing egregore emerges to threaten the status quo.  A new egregore in the neighborhood is often bad for business.

When established, a local egregore is empowered and sustained by energies derived from the rituals, beliefs, worship and sacrifices of its faithful community.  Joscelyn Godwin—cited in Mark Stavish’s book about egregores1—claims that this entity can appear over time to develop an active and independent existence.  The egregore then requires continuous devotion to maintain itself. 

However, the egregore is vulnerable to the distractibility of its followers.  They may transfer their attentiveness and energy to rival belief systems over time, and so weaken the egregore, making it less able to protect and provide for the society.  The original agreement—in biblical terms, a “covenant”—is broken, and disaster follows.

What exactly is this energy that fuels the existence of egregores?  It is not electromagnetic, thermal, chemical or mechanical in nature.  Since we suspect that egregores exist, how do we observe them, or quantify the energy with which they are fashioned or invoked?   What do we look for? What are their material signs? 

“Energy” in this context is a metaphor, a pseudo-scientific gloss for a phenomena that is difficult to understand, much less measure.  And there are subtle spiritual, psychological and social elements that defy mere counting and analysis.  Nevertheless, it will be helpful to find a less subjective approach to the study of egregores.  It may be that the energy we are talking about is really attention, and this is a process that can be quantified in direct and indirect ways.  

Attention might be measured in the number of adherents, the amount of money and material resources devoted to worship, the amount of time spent worshipping or invoking the entity, and even the physical labor and cost of creating sacred space and the implements for ritual practice. 

The prophet Isaiah might righteously have asked: “How much gold and silver, how much cedar, oak and pine went into this idol?”  (We might ask:  how many of our votes, how much air time, how many clicks, how much of our taxes, how many of our children, how many of our purchases, how much of our day, how much of…)

1Egregores, The Occult Entities that Watch Over Human Destiny, by Mark Stavish (2018).

Competition Among Egregores?

The idea of the egregore is not new.  According to various occult scholars1, the term comes from the Greek égrégoros, meaning “wakeful” or “watcher”.  Various non-canonical texts, such as the Book of Enoch, suggest it is a kind of angel.  This differs from more contemporary views, which see egregores as similar in some ways to memes, groupthink, and “hive mind”.  In a time of rapid social and cultural change, the concept of the egregore provides timely insight into the nature of collective consciousness.

Competition between rival egregores is frequent throughout history, and in the present.  Depending on point of view, one group may consider another’s beliefs repugnant, and seek to eradicate them.  (Today we might call this “controlling the narrative”.)  Classic examples of this can be found in numerous biblical exhortations against idolatry. 

Ancient Israelites were attracted to the religions of the indigenous people among whom they settled—the worship of Dagon, Asherah, Moloch, and others.  Prophets repeatedly called them back to their original beliefs and rituals to avoid calamity, but with limited success.  In the book of Isaiah, the prophet laments the involvement of craftsmen in the manufacture of idols for local egregores:

“The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm.  He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint.  The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses.  He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine.”  (Isaiah 44: 12-13)

In exasperation, the prophet points out the irony of using cedar, oak or pine for this purpose:

“No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, ‘Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and ate.  Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?  Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”  (Isaiah 44: 19)

Many centuries later, the book of Acts tells how the Apostle Paul’s evangelical efforts upset the local silversmiths in Ephesus, eventually leading to a riot.

“A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there.  He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said:  ‘You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business.  And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia.  He says that gods made by human hands are not gods at all.  There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”  (Acts 19: 24-27)

Competition, conflict, and the distraction of rivals weaken the vitality of an established egregore.  The use of labor and resources—as tangible markers of devotion—suggests that local economics can  determine the fate of an egregore and its worship.  Are there parallels in contemporary society?

1See Mark Stavish’s book Egregores, The Occult Entities that Watch Over Human Destiny (2018).

Egregores and the Cthulhu Mythos

I first learned about the concept of the egregore from John L. Steadman, the author of H.P. Lovecraft & The Black Magickal Tradition.1  He came to our town not long after his book was published, and spoke to a small but interested group at a local book store.  Steadman attempted to show the continuity of some of Lovecraft’s ideas, namely his Cthulhu Mythos, with the belief systems of various occult traditions. 

S.T. Joshi, one of Lovecraft’s most thorough biographers, praised Steadman for bringing “a refreshing dose of reason and sanity” to the discussion of Lovecraft’s supposed involvement with occultism.  Over the years, some of Lovecraft’s zealous fans have wondered whether the horror writer believed his fictional pantheon of Old Ones really existed. 

William Lumley, a devotee and associate of Lovecraft’s in the early 1930s, once wrote: “We may think we’re writing fiction, and may even (absurd thought!) disbelieve what we write, but at bottom we are telling the truth in spite of ourselves—serving as mouthpieces of Tsathoggua, Crom, Cthulhu, and other pleasant Outside gentry.”2

Steadman doubted that Lovecraft believed his creations were real.  However, he argued that Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep and others may correspond to primordial entities or forces known by various names around the world.  During certain rituals, these phenomena could be experienced directly by occult believers.  In fact, a number of contemporary occult practitioners now include members of the Cthulhu Mythos in their various theologies.

It was in this context that the concept of the egregore came up during Steadman’s talk.  He described the egregore as a kind of undifferentiated energy. This energy eventually assumes a form given it by the preconceived notions of those sensitive enough to detect its presence, who interact with it, worship it, or invoke it ritualistically.   Per Steadman, the most potent egregore active today is the Christian god.  This is likely due to His superior number of followers around the world.  According to Steadman, egregores take on a life and agency of their own over time, and cannot be eradicated as long as their believers still exist—a disconcerting thought.

Steadman told of an encounter he had with an entity he called “the Watcher”.  It was an angel-like figure that he and two assistants had conjured in the valley of some sand dunes near Lake Michigan.  What did this egregore, the Watcher, looked like?  At times it appeared as a large, mean dog.  Other times it looked like a formless cloud of color that swirled about him.  Its most frequent form was that of a large white man, bald, with peculiar eyes and a flowing white cape.  The Watcher was not easy to get rid of once invoked, sometimes appearing unbidden in Steadman’s apartment.

It seems that egregoric phenomena can occur on both a personal and collective level.  The concept can be applied in a more general sense, as a kind of base material for the creation of gods, ghosts, demons and other supernatural beings.  They manifest themselves through imagination, visualization, dream imagery, ritual, and worshipful attention.  Is the egregore a kind of screen for the projection of human fears and desires, a place where these can take shape?  Are there political, cultural, and economic egregores in addition to the supernatural ones?  These are some questions to explore further.  

1Steadman has a new book out this year, Aliens, Robots & Virtual Reality Idols in the Science Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson, (2020).

2See S.T. Joshi, I Am Providence, vol. 2 (2013) p. 825.

Beginning

Welcome to Egregoric Times!

In the summer of 2013 I created The R’lyeh Tribune blog, and wrote weekly posts until May of 2017.  Most of those essays and articles focused on H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries in horror, fantasy and science fiction, though other topics were also explored.  This new blog, Egregoric Times, will continue where the previous project left off. 

I am eager to return to some themes that were briefly investigated in The R’lyeh Tribune, especially the relationships between horror, religion and dream psychology.  Is there an underlying experience or sensibility that unites all three?  And in these troubled times, is there a collective response, a social conjuring of some entity that we unwittingly empower through our focused attention?

That is, an egregore?

For several years I have been fascinated by the idea that literature, religion and dreams could be “of the same substance”.  That this substance may be the same material from which egregores are formed, through a process of sustained, focused, ritualistic attention.  It seems likely that this substance, this stuff emanates from a personal and collective unconscious, which in fact is not un— or sub— but the primary consciousness through which we experience the world.

When we focus the meager light of our self-awareness on the roiling dark waters that surround us, what takes shape there?  Should we interact with it, talk to it, chant it into view?  Is it something we want to see, something that leads us to safety?  Or is it something that makes us scream?  

H.P. Lovecraft and his colleagues at Weird Tales created enduring and influential work during a period of great social and technological change—not unlike our own times.  American society needs horror writers like Lovecraft and others, past and present, to document our personal and collective nightmares, so that we may revisit them—at some distance—and come to a greater understanding of ourselves.  Perhaps by doing so we will avoid catastrophe.

Perhaps.  As I write this—seven years later, in the middle of 2020—catastrophe still looms.  A global pandemic, a traumatic national election this fall, and planetary environmental degradation are only a few of the current harbingers of disaster.  I still suspect that horror and religion are two halves of the same coin, rolling together toward that doom we all share, whether we seek the possibility of salvation or not. 

Maybe something we can talk about…