Traditionally, the beginning of a new year is awash with messages about setting goals and creating purpose for the year ahead – but what do you do if you feel completely lost? It’s easy to look around on social media and elsewhere and feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t have everything figured out.
When he was in his 80s, my grandfather – who fought in World War II, had a career as an engineer, and helped raise three kids – told me that nobody has their life figured out.
“By the time you get to my age,” he said, “you realise that people aren’t as sure as they seem on the surface. Everybody wonders whether they’re getting it right.” I asked him how he managed the life he had, with all its responsibility and hardship. “You take one day at a time and do your best. Don’t worry about what anybody else is doing. Just give every day your best shot.”
Similar advice came later on from a senior journalist who had published two books of fiction. I knew how busy his job was and he also had a family to look after. How did he manage to write books with everything else he had going on?
“You write one sentence at a time and build from there. Don’t go dreaming of writing bestsellers – just write the next sentence until you have enough.”
At some point in life, we all feel stuck or lost. Thinking about how to be, what’s important, what to do (and how to do it) can be overwhelming when we try to imagine the bigger picture and see a blank canvas staring back.
The question of how to live has been a common one among philosophers, theologians and psychologists through the ages, all with different perspectives and ideas on how it’s done.
In 1933, legendary Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung replied to a letter he received from a woman asking how she should live life. He advised, “Your questions are unanswerable because you want to know how one ought to live. One lives as one can. There is no single, definite way for the individual which is prescribed for him or would be the proper one…. If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious…. If you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful….”
Reading Jung’s advice that there is “no single, definite way” to live feels liberating in terms of how much we compare ourselves with others. On reflection, the pressure to live “the right way” comes from a vague notion of what we believe the consensus to be, when in fact none exists.
For example, some feel they should be married by the age of 30, own property by a certain age, or attain a particular level of education. While these are seen as wise investments by some, the world doesn’t collapse without them.
To another correspondent, who felt he had squandered his life, Jung was equally sympathetic and wise in his response. He wrote that “there is no pit you cannot climb out of provided you make the right effort at the right place”, advising that the man to “do the next thing with diligence and devotion and earn the goodwill of others. In every littlest thing you do in this way you will find yourself.”
When we feel lost, it’s understandable that we might frantically search for the answers that can help us piece everything together at once. But this desire also creates more uncertainty and a deeper sense of feeling stuck.
A helpful starting point to manage the anxiety of feeling lost is to realise that you are truly not alone. The next time you’re in a shopping mall, take a look around you. Every single person you see is carrying insecurities and struggles beneath the surface. It’s OK to be exactly where you’re at. Allow yourself to not have all the answers you’re looking for at the moment.
When you go to a bookshop, the reason there’s not just one self-help book containing the answers to life’s biggest questions is that such a book doesn’t exist. Jung was right, there is no one way to live.
Rather than looking for the meaning of life, it’s helpful to ask yourself how you can put meaning into the life you’re now living. What’s the next thing you can do, however small, that moves you in a meaningful direction? It might be something as simple as cleaning your room to give you a sense of order. It could be reading a few pages of a textbook each day that helps with your studies.
The next necessary thing might even be to listen to your body and rest if you need it. Make a commitment to yourself: meet yourself where you are and do whatever’s needed, and take things one step at a time.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email [email protected] The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.