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Coping With the Stress of an Age of Collapse

Coping With the Stress of an Age of Collapse

Or, How the Human Journey's at a Crossroads

A thing happened today—as things do, in a kind of Jungian synchronicity—which put flesh on the bones of a post I've been meaning to write.

I'd asked an old friend to meet for coffee. "How are you?," I asked, laughing, as we embraced. "I've just lost my job," he said, looking crestfallen. We talked for hours, about the old days—we used to work together, and I always liked and admired him. We exchanged stories, traded memories, reassured one another. Things would be OK. Whatever guidance I could offer, I said, was his to have.

I left our little rendezvous feeling nostalgic. The old days. The world was a different back then. Stabler, more secure, optimistic, even. It wasn't so long ago. Five years? Seven? And now—that feeling. What shall we call it? The feeling of a world on fire.

How do you cope with it all? The profound stress of living in an age like this. An age of collapse. Is that feeling real? The sense of an ending, as a novelist once famously called it, in an excellent book. Only now it seems to apply to...our civilization. Democracy. On the brink. Economies. Sputtering. Societies—riven, tearing themselves apart.

I worry about you. My dear subscribers and friends. I'd be lying if I said I didn't. You see, I know from looking at the statistics that several things are true. If you didn't read the post or watch the video about them, click the links.

One, we're all feeling distressed these days. The numbers are shocking—70% of people are seriously stressed. Worse, about basic life stuff—the economy, the future, society.

Two, those numbers are likely to be an understatement, because we also know that people...don't like talking about how bad they feel these days. They feel it's a burden on others, a source of humiliation or shame.

Three, "stress" is an understatement, too. Young people in particular say they feel "numb," "completely overwhelmed," unable to function most days. Those are signs of trauma—textbook symptoms, in fact. I'd venture that doesn't just apply to young people, but to those of us who are especially empathic, attuned, or vulnerable in different ways.

Now listen to what the APA has to say, because I think it's especially revealing:

"When it comes to stress management, many are struggling to cope and are bearing the burden alone. Around three in five adults (62%) said they don’t talk about their stress overall because they don’t want to burden others. Although finances are a top stressor, talking about them is off the table. In fact, only 52% of adults said they are comfortable talking with others about money/finances, and more than two in five adults (45%) said they feel embarrassed talking about money or their financial situation with others."

See that? "Many are struggling to cope and are bearing the burden alone." So: don't let that be you. Let's go back to my friend and I. I asked to meet him for coffee—and he let me know that he'd just lost his job. If I hadn't asked, would I have known? Would we have been there for each other? You see my point a little bit. Don't try to bear the burden alone...

Because nobody can.

You see, we're going through something profound. It's scary, it's unsettling, it can be terrifying at times. We are genuinely living through one of human history's great turning points. All around us we see the world beginning to crumble, in more and more obvious ways. Will democracy last? Will our societies endure? Why are people turning to lunacy and conspiracy theory? Where will some kind of spark for our economies come from? And that's before you get to the Existential Problems. Climate change, inequality, extinction, a broken economic paradigm, and so on.

The feelings all this raises in us are more than deep: they're new. Consider the following, which we'll discuss in more depth in the coming days:

"Google searches related to “climate anxiety” are at a record high after steadily increasing over the past five years, the search giant said in an email to TIME. Searches worldwide related to “climate anxiety” or “eco-anxiety” increased by 4,590% from 2018 to 2023, according to the company's data."

This is a new feeling. Maybe there are civilization which have experienced variants of it before, but on a worldwide scale? This is a new human experience.

And it's not a good or pleasant one. But what it can be is a meaningful one. I'll come back to that. For now, the point isn't just climate anxiety. We can think of a whole new range of stressors. The stress of...democracy imploding. What's that called? The sense that the future won't get better, which is something endemic now—what's that called? How does it make you feel when I say "we're out of sources of economic growth"? These are new emotions.

We can assign them old names. "Anxiety," which in itself is a new assignation for older terms like angst or despair or dread. But in this case, I think the old terms come closer. Much closer. They contain more in them. They cut deeper to the truth of a thing like, a new human experience.

Now. This is a shared experience. That fact about Google searches skyrocketing, because we're all afraid of the end of the world environmentally, basically? Or at least more and more of us are. So we're all going through this. Or beginning to.

Only we don't know to...go through this. We don't even have names for these new emotions yet. And so what we certainly don't have is "coping mechanisms," and that term doesn't quite capture the depth and ferocity and intensity of these feelings, these sentiments, this shared experience, anyways. Are we just supposed to..."cope"...with all this? All this? Is that even possible?

It's not a pleasant shared experience we're having, the profound stress of an Age of Collapse. But it can be a meaningful one. We are experiencing a kind of death. The old world is dying. Any death brings with it intense grief, a sense of profound loss, loneliness, a vacuum, a feeling of being adrift, maybe even betrayal, abandonment, and engulfment.

So this shared experience is an incredibly complex one. If I speak to you about all this stuff, what do you feel? Anxiety, again, doesn't really capture it. I'd bet that you feel a range of emotions, and they're different, in a way, for each of us. From despair, to shame, to guilt, to humiliation, to anger, to loneliness, and so on. The experience is universal, and yet, individually, given our circumstances, and lives, we feel it in different, unique ways. Ways which are incredibly complex. To feel a mixture of despair, guilt, shame, or whatever the case may be—that's a rich and complex thing.

It's in that sense that we must begin to not try to cope alone. Because it isn't possible, in all the senses above. Our first challenge now is just to explore our feelings. I mean that, even though it might sound soft, and abstract. What are you feeling about all this? Have you really ever shared it? Even with yourself? Have you sat with yourself and allowed your own presence to really appreciate and just understand what you're feeling? You see, I'd bet most of us haven't even gone that far, because, of course, we're overwhelmed on an almost daily basis.

That's where not coping alone comes in. Our job is to share how we feel about all this, together. In incredibly raw and honest ways. That is the only way that meaning is gleaned from the depths of tragedy. And what we're experiencing is a tragedy. Not just one, but many. What do you call a world losing its grip on democracy, the future, sanity, prosperity, all at once, because that's what appears to be happening? And that's how it feels, to most of us, and you can go right ahead and admit that, because as we've discussed, that's exactly what the statistics say.

Now. There's a curious norm about all this, and it's what the APA points to. We're not supposed to talk about it. Any of it. Mostly, we're supposed to pretend like everything's fine, and life is going on as usual. Normal normal normal. Nothing out there in the world is normal anymore. From politics to economics to society to culture. Right down to everyday life. Everything is weird, dislocated, dehumanized, and more and more of what we do feels empty, a charade, a performance, from politics to economics to society. And yet we're supposed to not talk about it.

It serves less than no purpose. We're in a profound crisis of being, as I call it, and not talking about it only makes it worse. The old norm that we're not supposed to talk about it based on a certain assumption: mean reversion, or the idea that things always go back to normal. So just grin and bear it, sweat it out, stiff upper lip, don't rock the boat, and all the rest of it. And in a way, I suppose, maybe it makes some sort of sense: if things are eventually going back to normal, then sure, why bother taking about how it feels during a temporary hiccup or downdraft? The chill will soon turn right back to a sunny glow. But this time is different. Things aren't going back to normal, and increasingly we all know it. That's why we feel anxious. We don't know what happens next, we only know it's not what used to happen before.

We need to share all this. The depth and range and complexity of what we really feel. How intense and painful it can really be. What mistakes we feel we've made, and what we feel we want to change. It's from that impetus that we turn all this difficulty into meaning. That we orient ourselves in constructive, positive, and transformative ways again.

And that's what really matters. You see, Sartre once famously said: "man is a useless passion." He knew he couldn't save anyone from the jaws of existence, it's terror and despair. And he went on being a noble and great humanist anyways. This is our challenge in this age, too. Yes, the world is crumbling around us. And yet we must orient ourselves in positive, constructive, and transformative ways to save what we can of it. That might not be much, or it might be more than you think. We don't know yet. But if we don't try, then surely, all is lost.

The only way that we begin that task—and it's an immense task, if we're honest—is to begin this emotional journey. Because what's the alternative? We feel overwhelmed. We go numb. We stop functioning, like young people say they're doing. That way lies shutdown. And at the end of that road, we become easy prey for demagogues and lunatics, who are predators of broken spirits and feeble minds. So to begin this task before us, we have to go on this emotional journey, of all these new emotions.

That's hard, because they're not easy ones to contend with. That's why I explained that we're all feeling this stuff together, yet the norm of isolation and pretense is keeping us from really understanding that well. It's through understanding how this age is shaping us as individuals—hey, you feel this way? I feel three of those things, and also this—that we begin to make meaning of it. And from that meaning comes a renewed sense of change. A hunger to transform, to create, to renew, to elevate, to hold one another through these difficult times—remember, this is a death—and to lift one another up past them.

We are all we have. We have two roads before us now. One is the road of antagonism, and you can see how demagogues and fanatics are already taking us down it—and yet we all know where it ends: in ruin, folly, and self-destruction. Then there's the road of protagonism. But a protagonist is a figure who struggles.

This, my friends, is our struggle. Like the crew of a great ship, lost at sea, none of us can find our way home alone. None of us are Odysseus on this journey. All of us are Odysseus on this journey. Isn't it time we started talking about it?

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