10 min read

(Why) Our Civilization is Losing the Will to Live, or Love and Hate and Life and Death in the 21st Century

(Why) Our Civilization is Losing the Will to Live, or Love and Hate and Life and Death in the 21st Century

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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  2. We have a radical democracy. Will Trump voters destroy it? (WaPo)
  3. ‘It’s Just Agony’: A Suburban Family Mourns Nearly 200 Gaza Relatives (NYT)
  4. The world is witnessing a near-breakdown of international law, Amnesty International has warned in its annual report. (Euro News)
  5. Housing experts say there just aren't enough homes in the U.S. (NPR)
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Hi! How’s everyone? Today…we’re going to go…deep…into the broken heart of this troubled age. Maybe too deep.

There you are, dwelling, maybe, like so many these days, on your failures. Hold on, let me wear one of mine on my sleeve. I was excited when I set up The Issue. And so I did a thing I rarely do. Being a sort of off-the-charts introvert, I never…reach out to people. And just say hi. But this time, I did. I let a bunch of old colleagues and acquaintances know. And like a proud new parent, I waited….and waited…and…


Not a single one “got back to me,” as we say these days. And I was pretty forlorn about it, for a while. Moping around. And then it occurred to me that maybe—this is the part where if this were a typical story of the modern age, it’d be All My Fault, and I’d come to a startling epiphany about Self-Improvement.

But it wasn’t like that. Instead, I thought to myself: “wow, these guys must all…kind of…hate me.” Because I remembered that over the years, when I’d been really sick…yes, the light really can kill me, and yes it really did take me a Very Long Time to master that particular aspect of being a mortally frail human…they hadn’t been there for me, then, either. Which is…let’s just say…not very nice. We had an instrumental relationship, as psychologists would say, aka, what can I get from you, and not on my end.

I don’t know if that’s hate, maybe just a sort of blinding indifference. But I feel hated these days. Doesn’t everyone? Aren’t we all…sort of…afraid of each other now…human hair triggers…ready to explode? Perhaps not you, gentle and wise reader. But the average soul? 

Love and Hate in the 21st Century

I was in the park the other day, with Snowy. And I was talking to an acquaintance, a Canadian. I didn’t know him very well, but I do now. Apropos of nothing, he started rambling about the “reign” of Justin Trudeau. Hello, Canada is one of the world’s last few full democracies. Nevertheless, he feels hated. And he hates right back.

So the sort of judgment I arrived at wasn’t about me, at all. It was about…love and hate. In this troubled, disturbed, Dark Age that’s falling.

Think with me about love and hate for a second. By way of the obvious example, Trumpists. Trumpists…are in love with Trump. In a kind of bizarre, regressed, infantile narcissistic way. Daddy Alone Can Save Me. 

But they love him because he gives them the license to hate the rest of us. There he is, not just disparaging, but sort of encouraging if not inciting violence against anyone and everyone who’s not in the fast shrinking category of “pure and true.” 

They love him because they hate us. It’s not fashionable to put things in such simple terms, in this age of publishing’s modish “unreliable narrator,” but…isn’t it true

But the rabbit hole does deeper still. They hate us…because…why? We’re not…doing anything to…them. We’re just sort of living our lives. You can’t tell me that, for example, the wonderful lesbian couple up the street with an intelligent and vivacious kid who just started college…is doing anything to harm anyone

So they hate us…because we are who we are…and we’re sort of happy about it. They envy us. For our joie de vivre, our refusal to accept the limitations they adhere to, the quiet (and loud) hypocrisies that define much of their lives, like religious fundamentalists being on the side of violence and spite, not acceptance and warmth. This, too, is a fundamental psychoanalytical mechanism. Just as Trump seizes on the primal fear of infantile regression—I’ll vanish without Daddy protecting me from this unsafe world!—so too they hate us from a place of primal envy.

Think about how different we are, when it comes down to it. We struggle, maybe more so than them. Hell, we’re all economically challenged these days, but try being a woman, gay, a minority, different in any way, on top of that. And yet…we don’t hate. This is the fundamental difference between us. We don’t go out there and sort of encourage violence or brutality or want to take anyone’s rights or freedoms away, and no, the lesbian couple up the street from me is emphatically not doing that just by existing.

They envy us for existing. In our truth. In the tragic and awful truth of who we are. Because even though we struggle, we still hold happiness, life, truth, beauty, goodness, dear. Dearer, maybe. They envy us because we haven’t been corroded by these awful times. They envy us because we’re still innocent, in an existential sense. We just innocently exist, and though that’s often incredibly difficult, the struggle is worth the reward, which is the triumph of having existed in the full truth of one’s self.

So. Love and hate are interconnected in this sort of twisted way before us now. And this pattern is spreading around the world now. Love for demagogues, in the sort of wounded, abused, traumatized kid sense, which comes from a license to hate everyone else who’s triumphant in the innocence of existing as their true selves. And even within that is another convolution: that hate itself is envy, which is a form of…love. Only twisted upon itself so it no longer recognizes its own message.

This is love and hate in the 21st century. And it makes me profoundly, terribly, sad.

How the Human Soul is Withering, or, What Happens When Sociality Implodes

Let me now formalize all that a little bit. Here’s a quote that might help it make more sense.

“We think of affective polarization as being extremely loyal to one side and feeling strong animosity toward the other side,” Mason wrote. This can be rooted in substantive disagreements on policy, identity-based status threat, safe versus dangerous worldview, historical and contemporary patterns of oppression, violations of political norms, vilifying rhetoric, propagandistic media, and/or a number of other influences. But once we are polarized, it’s very difficult to use reason and logic to convince us to think otherwise."

So. The world around us has broken down into instrumental relationships. We use each other, and discard each other. It used to be sort of a hallmark of corporate life, but now it’s truer in deeper ways, the pernicious reach of the tentacles of instrumentality reaching across various forms of sociality. Tinder, but for everything.

And as relationships have been reduced to instrumentality, it seems to me that the human mind has cleaved. We often talk about black-and-white thinking, and these days, it’s love or hate. You love Trump or hate him, you love Taylor Swift or…etcetera.

And in all that, we’re losing something vital and precious and true. What is that something?

Life and Death in the 21st Century

How do you feel about…life…these days? Don’t lie, it’s OK—you can just think it to yourself. Most of us feel deadened.

That comes from every kind of statistic there is, really. I often say we’re in the Modern Crisis of Being, well-being plummeting—but a simpler way to think about that is that life is becoming strangely…joyless. You can pretend you don’t feel it, and maybe that’s even honest, but you’re by far an outlier these days. 

How is this process of deadening—sometimes, I call it “The Joyless Age”—happening? Think about what happens to us as we cleave the world into loved and hated, us and them, we and they, enemy and adversary versus someone just like me, and only that kind of person can be trusted, valued, respected, and, in fact, is a person at all.

We lose the subtlety and complexity of life. We’re becoming something like self-made castaways, trapped on islands of our own making. Rejecting everyone who’s not exactly like us is just another way of expressing extreme narcissism, really, and we end up isolated, afraid, and…brittle is how I put it the other day.

When we engage in this kind of binaristic thinking, of course we feel deadened. To feel alive is to grapple with…what, exactly? With others. If I put you on a desert island, it might sound like a pleasant fantasy, but within a week, you’d be pulling out your hair. And after a month? You’d begin to feel dead inside. Because every day would be exactly the same, punctuated by moments of terror, with no real…human connection.

This is sort of where we are today. Trapped in black-and-white thinking, life itself is turning to death. And I mean that very literally, not just metaphorically. Our democracies are imploding, our cultures at war, our societies crumbling—all because we refuse to accept the idea that in difference, the complexity of life lies. Think about how weird it’s gotten: we sort of normalize mass death now, shrugging it away, whether in Covid’s heyday, again today in Gaza, or in the millions climate change is already killing. We’ve learned how to severely, grossly dehumanize one another, and are trained in doing so every day, algorithmically, institutionally, organizationally, disinformationally.

What do we gain from differences between us? These days, there’s a great deal of focus on what we lose. We lose certainty, surety, power, identity, even, perhaps. But we gain greater things—far more so. Purpose comes embracing difference, because if the only people you’re surrounded by are exactly like you, then of course, like I said, that’s narcissism, and in that lies the great emptiness of purpose. Meaning, too, comes from the differences between us. For me to mean something, you must mean something else.

So in the end, rejecting difference, and craving absolute conformity, unity, to a sort of clone-like level—which is always the impulse at the heart of every authoritarian and fascist project—we lose…something grave. The biggest gift of all, I think. Have you guessed what is it yet?

Why Our Civilization Feels Like It’s Dying

Our civilization feels like it’s dying. There, I said it out loud. We all know it. It’s the one impulse, intuition, secret feeling which unites. The right believes it, and blames it on a long and growing list of hated others. The left believes it, and blames it on capitalism, greed, and so on. Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

The true portrait is starker still. Our civilization is dying because it’s losing the will to live. Eros and Thanatos—the life and death instincts. Today, the death instinct is so dominant, people, like in poor, foolish Britain, will happily wreck their own societies. The life instinct, on the other hand—it’s diminishing and dwindling by the day. 

That’s precisely because the world has degenerated into instrumental relations, in which complexity and beauty can’t really emerge. And in that vacuum, the broken mind cleaves what’s left into the loved and hated. But none of this is the will to live.

The will to live is many, many things. But above all it’s something like this. The acceptance of the great struggle of life, and the bittersweet awareness of its universality. We’re all wounded, frail, mortal things, here for an instant—and then, just like that, in a twist so cruel it puts every form of sadism to shame…just…gone.

The will to live begins there. And from that epiphany, that all this pain and horror and struggle afflicts every life—it extends its arms outwards, in an act that’s noble, futile, and doomed. It attempts to hold the universe in its arms, as much of it as it can, which is always falling and broken and shattering. We put each other back together. That is all we have.

But right now? We’re ripping each other apart. And this is the sad, tragic, fatal stupidity of it all: life does that to us anyways. It tears us into weeping things. We lose our loved ones, we fail at this and that, our friends aren’t there when we need them, we make terrible mistakes, and yet—we try to carry on. Life rips us apart anyways. So when we do it to each other? We’re making the greatest mistake of all, which is not putting each other back together.

We feel deadened because enough of us aren’t taking on this challenge, which is the truest one there is, the one that’s existential, which defines whether a life holds meaning and purpose, which electrifies a life with the feeling of being alive. Ripping each other apart does none of that—it just has the cheap thrill of violence, and the sordid, metallic hit of power. But in the end? Ripping each other apart just leaves us more and more deadened, because of course, that way, we only grow inured to brutality, ignorance, spite, rage, hate, and our higher human faculties…wither…atrophy…decline…into nothingness.

Those faculties. The capacity to love. Genuinely, deeply, in a complex way—not just the infantile narcissism of “I love Trump!!” The capacity to love is the holding of another’s pain, and letting it sear one’s own soul. And that, in turn, gives us gratitude, fulfillment, a sense of place in this tragic place we call human existence, the deep, mysterious understanding of the way in which we’re all connected.

We’re failing at all that, if you ask me. At life. In the 21st century. The statistics, which I cite for you often? That’s what they sort of say to me, the story they tell. 

So there it is. Love and hate and life and death in the 21st century. There are days I wish I was stronger. But those days are few and far between now. Still, I want to give you whatever strength I have, to understand what it is that went wrong for us, and what mistakes we haven’t yet learned we’re making.

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