Despite existing in an era with the highest living standards in the history of mankind, despite having easy access to most of our material needs, recent polls have revealed that we modern people are miserable, angry, fearful, depressed, and riddled with anxiety. More so than ever before.
Depression rates have been steadily rising in the US since the mid-1930s. Approximately 40 million American adults are said to have an anxiety disorder. Depression and suicide rates, especially among teens, has risen drastically with the rise of social media and smartphones. Over six hundred thousand children 5 and under are on some type of psychiatric drug in the US. And opioid overdoses among American adults are out of control.
The question must be asked: Why?
Why are so many people depressed in an era of infinite possibilities?
Why are so many people prone to anxiety in the safest, most prosperous time in history?
With endless potentialities to change and set our own destinies, why are so many of us bitter and angry and pummeled with an agonizing sense of meaninglessness?
Freud defined depression as anger turned inwards. There’s some truth to this for sure, but I think the great existential psychologist, Rollo May, defined it more accurately — “Depression is the inability to construct a future.”
And anxiety simply comes from, as Rollo May also pointed out, “not being able to know the world you’re in, not being able to orient yourself in your own existence.”
Today, many people are lost, disoriented, and bewildered in their own lives and many believe they are incapable of building their own future. Many feel helpless, or in the words of Sartre, we feel the “anguish of freedom.” In other words, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
Carl Jung, one of the most prolific psychotherapists of the 20th century, remarked that about a third of his cases were suffering from “no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be defined as the general neurosis of our times.”
What happened in modern society to make this state of affairs so widespread?
Maybe it’s because we don’t have to struggle or throw our bodies into action for mere survival anymore, leaving more time to dwell inside our own heads.
Maybe it’s because hardships and dangers have been eliminated from our everyday life and we no longer have to prove our worth or ban together to overcome catastrophes.
Maybe the lack of adversity strips us of meaning and purpose.
Maybe it’s because we are conditioned to live behind a cultural mask and we never develop the essence of our own being.
Maybe it’s because we’re a product of the polarizing media propaganda machine that undermines our intelligence by misrepresenting information as sensationalized rubbish.
Maybe it’s because we bought into the big lie that status is important and that big homes and expensive cars and clothes and luxurious vacations are the way to happiness.
Maybe it’s because we’ve lost connection with the earth and instead, spend our days in air-conditioned cubicles sitting behind screens, gossiping as a way to project our own miserableness onto others.
Maybe it’s because our vision is narrow and we’re blind, petty, and stuck in a tiny crevice of our own limited perceptions. Maybe it’s because we have a worm’s eye view of the world instead of a bird’s eye view, so the horizon seems bleak and forever out of site.
Maybe it’s because we repress our instincts — the reality of our human nature — in favor of conforming to the rigid standards of culture and society.
Maybe it’s because we sit around and wait for the universe, or God, to provide us with the life we desire instead of taking the hard road of Work and Will to go after it.
Maybe it’s because we’ve been conditioned to look outside for heroes instead of behind our own eyes.
Maybe it’s because technology, with its many benefits, has also served as a buffer between us and nature; a wall that separates us from the deeper dimensions of our human experience.
Though we’re all connected more than ever, we’re also divided, lonelier, and angrier like no other time in history.
Humans evolved to cooperate and band together in small groups, which is how we survived the perilous days of our primordial state. We evolved to live in tribes and small communities and we found purpose in our contributions to the tribes we belonged to.
This is no longer the case.
Today, we are out of our element. We’re not made to function in this mass society we find ourselves in. Just take a gander at Twitter or at the comment section of a political article and you’ll see just how violently enraged we’ve become.
Carl Jung understood this dilemma well when he wrote that “this new form of existence,” speaking of the modern mass society, “produced an individual who was unstable, insecure, and suggestible.”
Jung warned that if the individual is discounted and diminished by society, he is vulnerable to the influence of the state and other mass movements to manipulate him into serving their devious agendas. We saw this recently in the United States on both sides of the political spectrum with the rise of the Alt-right, Antifa, and other bizarre extremist groups.
“The bigger the crowd, the more negligible the individual,” as Jung reminds us.
It’s undeniable that out of great effort and ingenuity we have created a highly prosperous, comfortable, and thriving civilization. But the shadow side of this culture of convenience is that, as Colin Wilson and many other great thinkers understood, it reduces the human being. “The comfortable life lowers man’s resistance so that he sinks into an unheroic sloth.”
What should we do?
How can we overcome the pitfalls of emptiness and an “unheroic sloth” and tap into our full potential as human beings?
I don’t know the full answer to that. Only you do as a unique individual. But we can pick the minds of some of the great thinkers and see what they had to say about living with purpose and vitality.
- Let Go
Americans are among the most stressed people in the world. Eighty-five percent of workers worldwide admit to hating their jobs, according to a Gallup poll recently.
The rat race is killing us. Get out as fast as you can.
Joseph Campbell reminded us that “we must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Once we see that the way we’re living is not catering to our passions, we have to change course. We have to recapture who we were before culture molded us into what we are today. We must. And yes, it will be painful. It’ll shake things up. And you’ll find yourself alone trudging thru the dangerous landscape of the unknown, but you must go.
As Carl Jung understood, “there is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
2. Embrace your suffering.
This world breaks us all. Use your suffering as a foundation to build your new self. As Rollo May wrote so eloquently, “suffering is nature’s way of indicating a mistaken attitude or way of behavior… every moment of suffering is the opportunity for growth. People should rejoice in suffering, strange as it sounds, for this is a sign of the availability of energy to transform their characters.”
Or in the words of Charles Bukowski, you have to die a few times before you can really live.
3. Become Aware.
Colin Wilson once wrote: “ the everyday world drags us along, like a slave behind a conquer’s chariot. One must learn to sever the rope, to allow the mind to stand still, to become aware of its affinity with mountains and stones.”
With our modern day comforts and ease, comes idleness and a fixation on cheap entertainment and trivial dramas. This causes our consciousness to become thick and sluggish and we coast through most of our days like a robot, hardly able to recall what we did this morning let alone last week. Everything has become routine, therefore, forgettable and dead.
But as Alan Watts once reminded us, “This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”
We have to learn to shut down the robot inside of us and heighten our consciousness. And we can do this by throwing ourselves into new experiences, by adventure, by danger, by turning off the news and reading the great works of poetry and literature. In the words of Henry Miller, “the aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.”
4. Quit Shopping.
If you’re the typical American, you’re likely drowning in debt and have nearly zilch in your savings account. And bad finances is contributing to your anger and your depression and it’s robbing you of your humanity. You have to ignore your manufactured appetite for material possessions. Your vain quest to impress your neighbor is fucking killing your soul and making you depressed.
Northwestern University found that people who place great value on wealth, status and material possessions are more likely to be depressed and anti-social than the rest of us.
It’s not a secret that the less you own the happier you become. As Bukowski said, the less I needed the better I felt. Spend money on experiences that’ll make your eyes explode in complete AWE, rather than on the latest gadget or fad that gives you short-term happiness.
As Lao-Tzu advised us, “Chase after money and security, and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval, and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”
5. Reconnect with the Earth and our Primal Instincts.
Jung noticed that “too much of the animal distorts the civilized man, too much civilization makes sick animals.” And, indeed, we civilized people in the western world are sick.
Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is, as Camus famously said.
We are the only species on the planet that’s been completely severed from our instincts — that huge part of ourselves that’s been repressed and replaced with phony smiles and that 9–5 mask.
As Nietzsche understood all too well, “the human being is, relatively speaking, the most bungled of all the animals, the sickliest, the one most dangerously strayed from its instincts.”
Nietzsche concluded that the only cure “for the disease called man” was a “return to nature” to revive our culturally suppressed primitive drives.
We have to get our fingers in the soil, learn to garden, meditate, walk barefoot in a meadow or in an open field, hike alone in the wild, sleep on the ground, learn about and experiment with plant medicine. Once again, as Alan Watts reminds us, “we do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.”
I could conclude this post with a cute little motivational paragraph, but I’m not feeling it. I just want to remind you that to be alive at this very moment in time is beyond a miracle. And it’s fleeting because you’re dying. Each breath is one breath closer to death. Are you going to take advantage of this accidental life you’ve been blessed with? Or are you going to fall victim to an unheroic sloth type of life that swallows the vast majority?
I’ll end with this great Charles Bukowski poem that reminds us that whatever we want out of this brief life, we must be willing to lose everything to get it. GO ALL THE WAY.