11 min read

Why We All Feel Lost These Days—And What to Do About It

Why We All Feel Lost These Days—And What to Do About It

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 biggest issues—the ones that matter most. If you like what you read, please consider sharing the Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

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Today's Read: 10 Minutes.

Feeling Lost, Stuck, Afraid. Why It's Not Just You. It's Our Civilization in the 21st Century. We dive deep into how we have a mountain of civilizational transformation before us, why it's making us all feel lost, and there's only one way out.

 1. The GOP’s arsonists lost on the shutdown, but they’re not going away. (WaPo)
 2. UK bosses plead for protection as ‘violent criminals empty stores.’ (Guardian)
 3. Investing in “sponge cities” can mitigate the toll of climate change. (Macleans)
 4. Young Chinese adults can’t find work. Now many have a new job description: ‘Full-time children’. (LAT)
 5. 'Counterfeit people': The dangers posed by Meta’s AI celebrity lookalike chatbots. (France24)

Today's Issue. Life. Civilization. Transformation. The Map vs The Way.

...Lost. If I had to summarize now, the feelings of now, in a word—that'd be it.

I've had friend after friend call me over the last few months. An unsettled undercurrent running through our conversations. I don't know what to do now. What next for me and mine? Nothing I do seems to...work out? Am I...cursed? Nothing's going right. Am I doing something wrong? Maybe everything? It all feels futile, pointless, scary. I feel so lost.

I'm here to tell you: it's not you. This feeling of being lost? A cry of terrible pain is shaking the world. Can you hear it? I can. Let me put it in perspective for you, and then we'll talk about what to do with it, the message it's sending you. Because hidden in it is a message, a great truth, a kind of deep, searing wisdom. We have a mountain of civilizational transformation before us—but we're out of map. Any surprise we all feel so lost?

So what do we do about it? First. It's not you—and why.

When I say "it's not you," I mean it at micro and macro scales. The micro scale is: more or less everyone is feeling lost these days. There are those who won't admit, and they feel the most lost of all.

Think about that with me. Who's the kind of person who won't admit it? Well, the sort that's turned to arcane, byzantine conspiracy theories, which seem to have an answer—a surreal, violent, brutal, and bizarre one—to everything. Why is everything going wrong for me? It's the fault of those people—they're evil, so evil, they drink kids' blood! Why, there's a global conspiracy of Satanic liberals (or who have you) who control the world! On and on it goes. You don't turn to this unless you feel so profoundly lost that you'll cling to anything for some sense of meaning, purpose, truth, your sensible, thinking brain basically broken.

So everyone feels lost these days. It's just that some people aren't willing to admit it, because they can't face it. Let's think about the other "side" now, which is people who haven't basically been corroded and damaged to this point. OK, you don't believe in conspiracy theories and hate—that's great. But then come myths of self-reliance and strength, put into new forms—"resilience" and "grit" and "power poses" or what have you—which add up to a norm that's profoundly self-destructive. Vulnerability is weakness, and weakness is death. So we stagger around, barely holding on, feeling lost, and nobody much—certainly not enough of us—admit it.

If you want proof, just think of the statistics coming out. Depression and anxiety rates are skyrocketing. "Deaths of despair," as two of the age's great economists, Case and Deaton, have termed them, are reaching crisis point. This isn't some kind of abstraction we're discussing. It's very real. It's a megatrend—and you, me, and everyone else is part of it. We're living in the Age of the Lost, if you like.

So why this feeling? Let me now put it in context for you. Lost. What do you see when you look around the world? Why do people feel this way, as the sentiment of the age?

Our civilization is lost. I emphatically don't mean that in the sense of "all is lost." I mean that...we're adrift. There's no real roadmap now. The old one's been torn up, and the new one...it hasn't been written yet.

What do I mean by "our civilization is lost"? Let's think about three senses of it. We're on track to hit 2.6 degrees Celsius of warming. On track. At that point, every tipping point we know of is it. And then events happen which make this last summer look like a mere cakewalk—mass wet bulb events, mega crop failures, system crashes. We don't have a map for how to get out of this plight. There's the kind of abstract "hope" that somehow, we're going to magically bend the curve of emissions down, and sure, we might, but that's not a plan. Our civilization is lost, in this grand sense. Just..out at sea.

Think about the economy. Right about now, we're projected to have a lost decade—and that's before you factor in shudder inducing estimates, like climate change could destroy half of our output. What's the roadmap to...get out of it? There isn't one. The economist in me can write one—the greatest wave of investment in history, resources devolved so the average person has more stability and security, etcetera—but that's not the same thing as our civilization having one. Economically, too, we're lost. Just like with climate change, we know where we're headed—and there's no real plan to...get out of the hole.

Now consider society and democracy. We should all know what the megatrend in this arena is: the rise of authoritarianism, fascism, sheer lunacy of the sort rising in America, where books and classes are being banned, and women aren't to use highways. Again, what's the plan to revive democracy? To have functioning social contracts again? What is a 21st century social contract, anyways?

You and I can probably agree on many of its elements: we should have the right, for example, to a clean and healthy environment, everyone should have affordable education and retirement, extreme wealth should be taxed, as should socially harmful activities, from carbon emissions to disinformation and misinformation, nature itself should have rights. But again, that's not a plan.

We have no real plans at a civilizational level for us to get out of the messes we're in. These messes have many formal names by now, since they're so...omnipresent. "Wicked Problems." "Polycrisis." "Permacrisis." "Existential Threats." The point is that while we're beginning—just—to recognize the scale and scope of the problems before us, we're nowhere near having a plan. One that we agree on, at a civilizational scale. One that...revives things.

What do I mean by "revives things"? Think of how...right now...this age...it feels kind of like a scary, shuddering, juddering plane ride...through extreme turbulence...and the nose is heading down. The autopilot's on, only it's been set to nowhere. We're beginning to realize, slowly, with dismay and maybe even horror, that we're trapped on this plane, only nobody's flying it.

So. Revives things. You can think of that in prosaic, mundane terms. Industries, sectors, fields, jobs, careers. We don't really have them yet, which is why our economies are beginning to crash and burn, even if there's a statistical illusion that they're "growing," while people, trapped in a global cost-of-living crisis, struggle to afford the basics, even in "rich" nations. Or you can think of it in deeper ways: mindsets, attitudes, values, norms. Or perhaps the most foundational sense of all: paradigms. What's our paradigm for the 21st century? For democracy, for politics, for the economy? For ourselves?

Nobody knows. Nobody much can say. We have glimmers, here and there—don't get me wrong. ESG's blooming as an industry, court cases for the rights of people and nature are beginning to be fought, and so forth. Those are tiny, tiny beginnings—and far from paradigmatic change yet.

So. You feel lost, I feel lost, we feel lost, because right now, our civilization is lost. Think back in history a little bit. That wasn't always true. It was so untrue, in fact, that no so long ago, scholars would speak confidently and maybe even haughtily, of the "End of History." It was a simple idea: rising prosperity would bring with it liberal democracy, which was the Telos, the endpoint, the final stage, the culmination of all of human history. But all that's in tatters now. The old meta-model, this Grand Idea, this Mega-Paradigm, of...everything...democracy, economics, politics, us...failed.

What was just "being a person," in that paradigm, anyways? Well, as that model failed, something interesting and weird and maybe a little predictable began to happen. As incomes stagnated and social bonds began to break—through the early 2000s and into the 2010s—we began to be bombarded and hammered with sets of ideas, ur-myths, even. Positivity. Power. Work harder, faster, better.

In other words, for the last few decades, we've been told that if and when things begin to go wrong...the problem is us. Not institutions. Not systems. Not broken paradigms and crumbling organizations. In other words, the Locus of Responsibility for a Failing Paradigm was said to be...the individual. We were made to internalize paradigmatic, mega-scale failures. Told over and over again in all these myths and stories that the problem was that we just weren't positive, or hard-working, or clever, or didn't "network," or weren't cunning, enough. But today, they stand revealed as fairy tales, because when a world's falling apart, the problem can hardly just be people just haven't tried hard enough at doing what they were told to do.

All of that raises a really profound question. How do you...even...just...be a person...in the 21st century? You see, if you trace that line above—a failing Mega-Paradigm assigned responsiblity to individuals, for what was its own failure—you'll understand the problem that we all face now much, much more clearly. That old way of just being in the world? None of it works anymore, if it ever did at all. You can't internalize responsibility for paradigmatic failures, because in truth, none of it's really your fault. Or at least not much of it.

Today, we're beginning to understand that, slowly, painfully, little by little. We can finally speak of, for example, "toxic positivity" and "aggression" at the workplace and structural problems that limit human possibility. That's been a long, hard hill for our civilization to climb. And yet those are only the foothills of the larger mountain, which is taller than Everest: our civilization's lost, and we don't have a map up, over, and out.

So we have to find the way out together. That brings me back to you. What do you do if you're feeling...lost? Three things, I think, are critical.

One, understand the picture at a macro level. We all feel lost today because our civilization's lost. Don't make the old mistake: internalize the failures of the old paradigms, and blame it on yourself. That's what all those old myths tell you to do, but they won't help. They're make you feel guilty, ashamed, maybe worthless, sap your will, purpose, inner strength, and wisdom.

Two, and this is really important. listen to the feeling. I know it's scary. It's scary as hell. There are no demons in this world—there are just the depths of experience, and they're far more terrible than any fairy-tale monster. Listen. Imagine it echoing through millions of people, because it is. Hear it as the voice of a civilization before a mountain, running out of map.

That feeling is telling you something. That your role is to be a leader now. That's true for all of us, at every level and scale. CEOs. Doctors. Teachers. Accountants. Doesn't matter. Every single role and job and person in the world today can and should rise to this challenge, in the way that they're called to. But to hear that, you have to listen. Maybe you're a chef, and it's just making...healthier, greener food. Maybe you're a CEO, and you know what, you know your organization should be better. Maybe you're just a grandparent, and you have wisdom to share. Doesn't matter. Listen to the feeling, hear the message, like...this.

Three, remember the model. Up, over, out. That's the only we get out of this mess. All of us and each of us. Civilizationally, we have to climb the taller-than-Everest mountain of new paradigms for everything from politics to economics to society right down to energy and food. But you as a person are on that journey, too.

So say it to yourself, ten times a day. A hundred times, if you need to.

Up, over, out.

Every time it gets scary, and it will get scary—say it. Picture yourself as a mountain climber, only there are no fixed ropes, no route, no map. You're just...dangling there...on the side of a mountain...axe stuck into the ice...and you've got to...keep going. How do you? Where do you head? What do you do? Up, over, out.

You as a person are on the same journey that our civilization is. Everything's stuck. The old ways have failed, from institutions and systems, to mindsets and attitudes. Worse, the old remedies—positivity, "resilience," grit," toughness, working relentlessly, whatever, don't work, either. You're going to need to look up the mountain. Plot the fissures to hang onto. See it all in your mind. And then take a step. You won't be succesful every time, at even just that, taking a single step. That's how it is when you're dangling on the side of a mountain, with no map. You might have to backtrack, hurl your axe into the ice again, and then head back up, a different way. That's OK.

Do do it well? To do it at all? You need to be gentle with yourself. Pace yourself. Take your time. Clear your mind. See clearly. Focus. Let your will surge. Hear your hidden wisdom. And then take a step. Along the way, something magical's going to happen. You're going to discover that—to your surprise—you're not the only person on this mountain. All of us are. So you're going to meet fellow climbers, and when you do, you can climb together, gathering your will and wisdom, expanding and redoubling your purpose, sharing your journeys, seeing and doing and being more together than alone.

Sure, there are a hardy few of us who might make it alone. But the better way? It's for us to lift one another up-out-over this mountain of civilizational transformation, together.

Does that make sense? Take a deep breath and reflect on it. Just let it...sink in. Your conscious mind doesn't even need to really to grasp it. It's your unconscious mind that matters here. Up-over-out. Once it absorbs that model, that message, the rest will begin to happen, almost by itself, your conscious mind exploding with force and purpose and intention. So just plant it...like a seed...this idea, this teaching, this model. Let it clear away the frustration and futility and fear. Of being lost.

It's true that we don't have a map. But so what? That's happened in human history more times than we've had one. And even when we have maps? We discover they don't lead us well, or maybe to the right places at all. Just because we don't have a map doesn't mean we're lost. We have a model, a message, a way, an intention, and that matters more, because it's the truest, most powerful guide of all. Up-over-out.

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