Today’s Epidemic of Hopelessness—And the Inescapable Fact of Societal Regression

I find the degree of cynicism that today permeates our world striking and troubling. As I psychiatrist who often works with young people, I find it particularly concerning. It is rare that a young person I work with expresses real hope about what lies ahead. I view making sense of what we see and responding effectively to be one of the most important mental health challenges of our time. 

I’m not in fact sure whether hope is warranted. Our times confront us with an array of truly existential challenges—climate change, nuclear proliferation, the specter of pandemic, digital technologies that could run amok. But a phenomena that most people fail to adequately recognize today is also playing a role with such negativity. Over the last thirty years, we have witnessed regression with regard to the maturity of understanding and decision-making needed for times ahead—and not just in the U.S., but around the globe.

Because we tend not go be very good at bringing big-picture perspective to our observations, only recently is such backsliding beginning to be acknowledged. The news rarely gets beyond the next news cycle. And our daily lives tend to be about whatever is happening immediately around us. Recognizing the fact of such regression doesn’t require looking back very far, but its implications could well be immense. We need to be able to acknowledge such regression. We also need to better understand it and see if we can put it in perspective.

Where do we see backsliding? I’ve written most extensively with regard to today’s growing social and political polarization. With issues of every sort people today are dividing almost immediately into polar camps. Often with particular issues it is not at all clear in advance that there is any reason for conflict. All we know is that division will happen eventually and result in absolutist advocacy from both sides. Conflict between ideological factions today has become so pronounced that real conversation about a great many topics has become largely impossible. People have always had differences, but this kind of reactive, absolutist polarization is new, and a major concern if we are to get along and have any kind of effective government. 

More globally, we see regression in the way numerous fledgling democracies in recent decades have moved in the direction of more authoritarian rule. As today we witness behavior from Vladimir Putin that is more in keeping with Cold War sensibilities—or even the time of Stalin or the czars—in a more encompassing sense I find myself concerned that regressive dynamics are putting us in real danger.  

People tend to miss one of the most concerning of regressive dynamics because we tend to associate new technologies with progress (particularly in these often techno-utopian times). More and more often today we are allowing our attention to be co-opted by our digital devices. In the process, we end up confusing pseudo-significance with real significance and living ever more superficial lives. This can’t continue if our devices are to serve us—and if they are not ultimately to be our undoing. 

We seeing backsliding, too, if we look to specific cultural spheres. A colleague who is a Catholic nun recently shared her disappointment that the kind of ecumenical conferences common in the later decades of the last century (that brought together people from far-flung faiths) had become rare of late. I’ve witnessed something similar in my own field. I remember a national gathering organized by psychiatrist Milton Ericsson in 1988 that invited the best thinkers from each of the often warring schools of psychological thought to join in conversation. I’ve not experienced anything of related depth sense. Late in the last century, books and newsletters that attempted to articulate post-partisan political perspective were also common. These related, more sphere-specific observations not only provide further evidence of regression, they support the timeline that I have suggested.

Creative Systems Theory, the body of work on which my perspective is based, describes how critical questions ahead for the species will require an essential “growing up” as a species, a new Cultural Maturity. Today we see regression with regard to the new capacities the concept of Cultural Maturity argues will be necessarily to addressing the most important challenges ahead for us a species. Backsliding when it comes to these capacities does not bode well for generations ahead. 

In my writing, I offer multiple possible explanations for why we might witness such backsliding today. Several such as the possibility that it reflects only the two-step-forward-one-step-back way societal change has always happened suggest that great concern is not warranted. But I suspect that dangers are real. At the least such regression reflects what the theory refers to as Transitional Absurdity, awkward in-between dynamics that systems manifest as they struggle to engage major change processes. 

My primary point here is simply that we need to be aware that regressive dynamics are taking place. If we don’t, we can end up simply depressed and disoriented. We can also respond by acting in ways that amplify the regression by further polarizing and blaming others for our pain. And beyond this there is a more embracing conclusion—the importance of that critically needed “growing up” as a species. With each of the examples I have noted, engaging cultural mature capacities provides the needed antidote to the backsliding we witness.