9 min read

The Everything Crisis, Crisis Fatigue, Plus Why the Life is Being Sucked Out of Our Civilization

The Everything Crisis, Crisis Fatigue, Plus Why the Life is Being Sucked Out of Our Civilization

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. What might happen after another inauguration of Donald Trump (WaPo)
  2. Alabama’s I.V.F. Ruling Shows Our Slide Toward Theocracy (NYT)
  3. Many Americans Believe the Economy Is Rigged (NYT)
  4. Another Climate Impact Hits the Public’s Radar: A Wetter World Is Mudslide City (Inside Climate News)
  5. What Was Capitalism? (Project Syndicate)
  6. How Leaders Can Earn America’s Trust (US News)
  7. ‘Scared for our kids’: anger mounts after non-binary teen dies following school fight (The Guardian)
  8. We’re Letting a Public Health Disaster Unfold In Slow Motion (The Nation)
  9. Alabama’s Unhinged Embryo Ruling Shows Where the Anti-Abortion Movement Is Headed (New Republic)
  10. Facing a Shortage of Luxury Artisans, LVMH Seeks Apprentices in the US (Bloomberg)

Today, we’re going to discuss the interplay between a macro trend and a micro trend. The world. It’s in chaos, on fire, crumbling, we say. How do we feel about it? How should we feel about it? Welcome to the age of the Everything Crisis—and Crisis Fatigue, too, a phrase that’s seeing more and more of an uptick.

The Everything Crisis. Scholars now call this age a “polycrisis,” numerous crises striking our world and civilization at once. Even that phrase might understate the case, as crises proliferate, intersect, and accelerate one another.

I don’t want to overwhelm you or bum you out. But I do think that we need to talk and think about this, and so let’s begin with a quick list of just how many crises there are. The word “polycrisis,” while a beautiful and noble idea, might just underplay the…sheer…number of crises hitting us. When you look around, everything appears to be a crisis. Or is that an overstatement? So let’s examine it together.

  • A housing crisis, stretching across the world. Here’s a good read about America’s.
  • Climate and ecological crisis—little needs to be said on this score, here’s a link about recent research about how close we are to tipping points.
  • A banking crisis—economists now worry that we’re on the cusp of another banking, as commercial real estate goes empty, remote work having changed labour.
  • A youth crisis, from America’s Gen Z, to China’s “lying flat generation”—“lost generations,” as we economists call them.
  • A loneliness crises, or a crisis in sociality itself, as friendship and relationships and having a family become luxuries.
  • Crises of despair, from “deaths of despair,” to negative emotions exploding off the charts over the last decade.
  • Political mega-crisis—democracy’s in steep, swift decline, as we’ve discussed in depth lately, genuinely imploding.
  • A crisis of well-being, what I call the “Modern Crisis of Being,” people’s well-being falling sharply, driving discontent, rage, fear, and self-destructive tendencies.
  • A cost of living crisis, that’s now approaching half-a-decade, and showing no real signs of letting up, as real incomes fall or stagnate.
  • Economic crisis—recessions’s sweeping the globe, and while the American economy is nominally “growing,” people on average are feeling profoundly insecure economically, unable to save, invest, or build stable lives.

I could go on—that’s just a short list. The Everything Crisis seems to be the hallmark of this age. It’s hard to pick out an aspect of life, the world, everyday existence, that’s not in or approaching the point of crisis. And while there are those of us who are better insulated from it all, that doesn’t mean that all this isn’t very real. All this: breakdown, fracture, meltdown, call it what you like.

It’s important to understand just how different this all is. There have always been periods of crisis. But that phrase masks a deeper truth. Those “periods of crisis” are often one-dimensional, or least not quite so broadly dimensional, meaning, there aren’t crises of everything all at once. In the 1970s, there were energy crises, in the 1980s there was the Cold War, in the 1990s there was the fall of the Soviet Union, in the 2000s America’s social contract began to fail, and a banking crisis erupted. But by and large, while crises happened—and of course they do—it wasn’t an Everything Crisis.

So this age is different in that crucial sense. And it’s difficult for us to process, understand, grasp. The sudden, swift exit of an age of stability—that’s relative, not absolute—in which, yes, there was a crisis every once in a while, but it was one-dimensional, a banking crisis, an energy crisis, a recession, etcetera, left us contending with the dawn of…all this. All this chaos and breakdown that we still struggle to really even have a good vocabulary for, because it’s happening so fast, and it’s so, in a sense, unexpected—the promise, after all, of the post-war world was stability, progress, and peace.

The Rise of Crisis Fatigue (and the Existential Experience of Death)

Crisis Fatigue. It’s a micro trend—as in, at the level of people, inside them, not the really big picture of macro forces—and one that’s growing, by the day, as we wearily contend with this new world we find ourselves in.

Crisis Fatigue. Suddenly finding ourselves in an Everything Crisis, people are burning out, weary, tired. The news is always bad, the headlines always dismal, and the sense of threat and despair only grows. In a classic process of reaction formation, psychological and mental fatigue are setting in.

It’s hardly a surprise, given the incredibly broad sweep of the Everything Crisis, that Crisis Fatigue is now setting in. What’s Crisis Fatigue really about?

It’s a kind of burnout. Burnout doesn’t come from just “being tired,” in the sense of working too hard, though that’s the commonly understood definition of it. Rather, burnout comes from a sense of meaninglessness, powerlessness, a loss of identity, and above all, a loss of agency. Finding ourselves unable to make a difference, to matter, to count, we burn out—not just physically, but morally, spiritually, emotionally. We go numb, shatter, turn to ice, freeze, end up paralyzed. If, after all, you don’t count, and little you do matters, then what’s the point of it all? You go through the motions, but each time, it’s a little more painful, and defenses must kick in that much harder to suppress the sense of meaninglessness.

This is where we are today as people. The evidence is all around us, and it’s pretty devastating, at least by my reading, when you look at it. The majority of young people say they’re “completely overwhelmed,” “numb,” and “paralyzed.” Depression, anxiety, despair, even suicide—all these have surged. There’s a sense of malaise in the air, which is only thinly disguised by the dead giveaway of the explosive over-enthusiasm of YouTubers and influencers. We binge-watch and doomscroll to try to numb the pain, somehow. Crisis fatigue is the emotional moment we’re approaching as societies and as a civilization.

So what do we do about it? Before we come to that, let’s first think of the consequence of Crisis Fatigue. The way that many of us feel about the world today, I think, already has a name. Sartre called it nausea. He meant it in a more existential way—the sick feeling of contemplating mortality, time, dust. But he also meant it in a more prosaic, pragmatic way, too: nausea, at the folly and horror and evil the human heart is capable of. I’d guess that the way we experience the world today, many of us, is precisely Sartre’s conception of nausea. 

We feel morally repulsed, yet powerless. That’s the way that young people certainly feel looking at Joe Biden’s handling of Gaza, for example, or the way that generations just above them feel about their working lives, or the way generations above them feel about the prospect of never retiring, or even the way we all just feel taking in the spectacle of inequality exploding while the world falls apart. This sense of moral repulsion—sometimes, we call it “being sickened.” What does that mean? It means we feel weak, as if the energy drains out of us, like the rational mind shuts down, and we freeze, ice-cold.

That sounds bad, and it’s the experience of dying, in a way. Something in us is dying when we experience this sort of nausea. Our innocence, our optimism, our courage, our strength. To be morally repulsed is a draining, emptying affairs, which robs one of one’s faith in human goodness, truth, beauty, and futurity itself. We shouldn’t minimize this—this experience is a kind of death, and it hurts profoundly.

I don’t say any of this to you lightly, by the way—remember, I spent several years right at the edge, just before we discovered I had a rare condition where the light could kill me. The psychological experience of “dying” is very much a process, and in Crisis Fatigue, though we might not understand it, we enter it in crucial, real, and meaningful ways—we encounter the limits of our agency, are reminded of our mortality, touch powerlessness, fail to hold all the strife and sorrow, grapple with the boundaries of the meanings of ourselves and the world.

That’s why we feel such Crisis Fatigue. Who wants to go through that little death over and over again? To be drained, emptied, left ice-cold, the energy sapped from their blood and limbs? The truth, I think, is that we’re experiencing a form of grief, over and over again, and of course, no human mind can take that—grief must be followed by the chance to mourn, to heal, to find grace, and gather one’s strength again.

Let me put my little psychoanalysis much more simply: our capacities to handle crisis are being overwhelmed by how much crisis there is in the world today. We can’t deal with it—nobody can. And that’s really the first thing to understand, too: nobody, and I mean no healthy or sane mind, can handle this much crisis, all the time. It’s not abnormal or wrong to feel Crisis Fatigue—in a sense, once you understand it as a kind of death, then you see how affecting it really is, and you should realize, too, that it’s beyond anyone’s capacities to really grapple with emotionally.

(Why) The Life Force is Being Sucked Out of Our Civilization

So what do we do about all this?

My thought, which might be a little controversial, go like this. I think that we going to need ways to understand what we’re going through, and that means our idea of mind, too, is going to reinvent itself for this age.

“Therapy,” as we think of it, is a paradigm of micro-scale life events. Immense on the scale of a life, to be sure—but it struggles when we contend with matters of worlds, societies, ages going wrong. I have a friend whose husband recently left her, and she’s deep in therapy—that’s what it’s made for. But is therapy really made for…contending with…the struggle of…an Everything Crisis?

It’s true that some therapists and forms of therapy are pushing these boundaries. Today, a minority can work with a therapist who understand structural barriers, racism, bigotry, and so on—that’s a good thing. But this is the cutting edge, and the paradigm itself, from Freud to the DSM, isn’t really about “the world’s going haywire, how should I feel about it?” The typical therapeutic answer is something like: “you can’t control it, so let it all go.” But it’s not that simple is it? Because we all live in this world, and we’re all experiencing a kind of death, over and over again, as we watch it burn, too. We can’t “control” it, but the question is very much: how are we to handle it?

There were many great psychologists who offered the beginnings of an answer—only their insights have been brushed under the rug, perhaps, in this age. “Social psychology” once meant Fromm’s mighty theories of how modernity leaves people empty and unfulfilled, and sends societies off the rails, or Frankl, Maslow, and Adler’s and notions of how meaning and purpose are a profound struggle in themselves. 

These are beacons to which we should look as we struggle to orient ourselves in this new age. Because that is the real question: one of orientation. What direction are we to face? What is our journey, now, collectively? The individualistic approach—my problems, my life, my control—is now outweighed and outmatched by the collective nature of an Everything Crisis. Orientation: if everything around is a crisis, if it’s all burning down, which direction do we choose? What destination lies beyond this, and what journey do we take, together, to arrive there?

Crisis Fatigue is a kind of death, a deep one, that cheats us of meaning and purpose, robs us of our faith in ourselves and in humanity, paralyzes us with despair and hopelessness. The way out is to remind ourselves that we must choose all these qualities of beauty, truth, and goodness, as individuals, and as collectives, whether societies, organizations, families. These are constructions that we share, virtues as lived experiences, where a flame lights the next candle. This is our struggle now, at least mentally, psychologically, and emotionally—finding our way back from the fatigue of death, to the shores of Eros again. 

Eros just means: the life force. Love, in a deep sense, if you like, or if you don’t, the opposite of nausea—the will to live, in a meaningful, constructive, and authentic way. 

At the deepest level, it’s as if the life force is being sucked out of our civilization and world. The death drive has taken over—self-destruction, in so many forms, surrounds us, that we’re overwhelmed. Each of those forms is a different facet of the everything crisis—political self-destruction, democratic crisis, ecological self-destruction,  climate crisis, economic self-destruction, stagnation and decline. Our vital energies are out of balance now—death overtaking life. And while rediscovering, renewing, regaining the vital spirit of Eros is never easy, especially in a time of crisis, it never matters more than precisely then, either. 

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