A letter to those who are feeling lost or stuck


One of our natural attributes as human beings is to be pattern recognition machines. We leverage this skill to achieve goals. This method is how we find food, safety, mates, etc. It is so deeply ingrained in us, that we can see this in the form of stories, or myths, as far back as we can read. These patterns help us to properly orient and act in this extraordinarily complex world. Because we are goal-oriented and goal-directed creatures, when we lose sight of such goals (due to lack of clarity, or achieving one set without the next in mind), we can fall into as Carl Jung stated the “general neurosis of our time” or, in other words, we might have a severe loss of drive and ambition.

“About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. It seems to me, however, that this can well be described as the general neurosis of our time. Fully two-thirds of my patients have passed middle age.” Pg. 70 [1]

When we humans are in a state of transition, it can lead to the feeling of being lost. One way to uncover what might be making us feel this sense of being lost is through dream analysis.

“In many cases, [the dreams] point directly to the past and bring to mind what is forgotten and lost to the personality. It is from these very losses that one-sidedness results, and this causes the standstill and consequent disorientation. In psychological terms, one-sidedness may lead to a sudden loss of libido. All our previous activities become uninteresting, even senseless, and the goals towards which we strove lose their value. What in one person is merely a passing mood may in another become a chronic condition.” Pg. 72 [1]

What might be some of the driving factors behind this one-sidedness?

The roots of “feeling lost”

Life is a pattern, a series of well structured times of pursuing clear goals, followed by times of transition. It is during these times of transition - when we lose sight of our goals or something changes in our lives - that we experience chaos, loss of clarity, and direction. This idea can come in an infinite variety of forms as the world is inherently chaotic.

An additional layer of complexity is added when we forget the previous challenges that we have surmounted. Perhaps we developed some coping mechanism, a habit if you will, to overcome a present moment hurdle. Now, years later, that is no longer a problem that we need to face. However, the habit persists. Take, for example, drinking coffee. At one time, we needed a cup of coffee to help get us through a day after a sleep-deprived night. Now we have been doing it for so long that we want a cup of coffee regardless of whether we are sleep deprived or not.

These unique experiences, challenges, and adversities that we face in our lives inherently make us who we are. If we think about it, who are we? We are incredibly complex biological, psychological, and social beings. Each of these previous components has a historical aspect. So all of our past culminates, shapes and forms us into who it is that we are today. For example, our biology is affected by not only our parents but our entire family tree. This set of circumstances makes us into the unique individuals that we are. Therefore, we can tackle challenges that no one else can.

From this overall system (bio, psycho, social, and historical), we form stories about ourselves. These stories are based on the feedback that we get from the world. This feedback goes into the formation and modification of our rules of engagement. As we shift the set of rules with which we lead our lives, we also alter the way we engage in the physical world. As we interact differently with our surroundings, the feedback that we receive is different and subsequently modifies the rules yet again. This sequence forms the basis of the story that we continually tell ourselves - which can and often does become quickly outdated even as we persist with our clinging to these dialogues that can be negative.

These stories can skew the way that we look at ourselves and the world. We often receive social feedback regarding the value of our actions. When we do something, that in the particular context of the situation is “abnormal,” then we are labeled as perhaps being weird. Our brain, however, will tend to apply this specific feedback to all potential scenarios when this low-value action could be carried out. This point is where anxiety is formed. “I was perceived as being weird when I did X, so I will probably be similarly interpreted when I do Y, and Z as well.” This notion can lead us to have deep-seated yet irrational insecurities. The critical thing to note is that these apparent flaws if deployed properly, can become strengths.

Take, for example, being short. Because of my stature, I was not inherently good at sports or did not have built-in confidence. So, instead of spending my time playing games or doing other activities, I often spent my time tinkering, inventing, reading, or writing. Because of this alternative path, I am now knowledgeable about many things that I would not have been otherwise. Ironically, now being smart is a highly sought after attribute in society at large. So my short stature paved the way for me to become a bit more intellectually adept as compared to my more physically gifted brethren. Now, of course, this is a broad generalization, with a microscopic focus on a single attribute, but the point here is to illustrate merely.

The focus thus far has been on the effect of surroundings on the human being. It is essential that we accurately interpret these signals to attain the proper value of different scenarios and objects. It is for this reason that we will introduce how we value and work toward different goals. As Jordan Peterson puts it, in the mythological sense, life is a domain for action. This idea means that our primary function here is to act. However, the primary driver for this action is value. Action presupposes valuation. The calculation is done that the perceived and aimed at the future, will be better than the present. If this is not the case, there is no driver for action.

Contemporary Confusion

Our methods of value have become skewed at best in the modern era. Instead of going for quality, we trend toward quantity. We will trade the means for the end. We think that we tend to prefer holding a lump of gold, as compared to enjoying the labor of goal pursuit. This concept is in my best estimation our losing sight of what matters. Now, I cannot sit here and tell you what is best for your life, however, what I can say is that many contemporary and prevalent goals, lead to little more than a short term high. Longer term fulfillment, ease, and enjoyment take a great deal of practice, dedication, discipline, and effort.

How do we personally define success within the context of social and societal norms? We must keep a balance between the two. A strongly differentiated self will pursue the goals that serve, and fulfill them as an individual, sometimes to a fault. It is when we become disconnected with our self, and start defining the self to a large degree by what other people do, or how they act; then we lose our sense of self. It is at this point that we must take a step back and begin to understand where we are living our lives for others. We can then discern if this living for others is because we want to serve and care for people that mean something to us, or if it is similar to being a chameleon, or taking on the identity of whomever we are around.

All humans require some semblance of purpose. Because we are justification machines, it is straightforward for us to attach some value and meaning to our work. If we do not attain this, we will be miserable. The key to happiness is love and work. It follows that love of work could lead to the highest semblance of fulfillment. However, the question remains how are we to find something to work on that we love?

What “should” I do with my life?

The age-old question is, “what should I do with my life?” This notion is something with which I have certainly struggled. What should we do about this? How do we find our way in a world far more complicated than we are ever able to navigate? How do we step from knowing what is (science) to what there should be (religion, myth, spiritual, morals, values, etc.)?

Let us return to the postulate that life is a domain for action. Now, we have all heard the banal platitude that the grass is greener on the other side. Is this, in fact, the case? I have directly experienced times when I set a goal, with a certain feeling in mind when I achieve it, only to get there and not only not feel that feeling, but be utterly disappointed with the result. If that is possible, then how do we know for what to aim?

I propose that experimentation and learning are two of the most profound things that we can do. If we experiment, then we experience. When we do this, we gather data directly from the world and can conclude how fulfilling such a task is. Secondly, by learning, especially about ourselves, we can begin to conduct a bit better life according to Peterson. As we learn about ourselves and we look inside where we least want to watch, we will tend to find what it is we most need to.

“What you most what to find will be found where you least want to look.” - Jordan Peterson was speaking about Carl Jung who was quoting an old alchemical dictum “In sterquiliniis invenitur” - in filth, it will be found.

Now, our inner landscape might be wretched and wrought with flaws. It is logical to ask, where do we begin? Alan Watts introduced an interesting German term called a Hintekedanken. He translates it into the voice way deep down in the back of our heads, the one to which we are not willing to listen. It seems that it is similar to our “gut instinct.” This notion is the feeling, voice, etc. that is when we look to it, we know what to do. Instead, we seemingly speed through our lives, taking on challenges to gain the approval of others. We are indeed a tribal species and need to fit it in, but we must also realize that deep and lasting fulfillment comes from satiating what is within.

Now, this notion points to an older idea - “Know thyself.” This saying points at the idea that we should indeed know ourselves. So again we should ask, how do I know myself? Do I know myself? Can I ever know myself? Alan Watts put it well in one of his lectures:

“What do I want? The answer is, I don’t know. Why don’t you really know what you want? Two reasons that you don’t really know what you want. Number one, you have it. Number two, you don’t know yourself, because you never can. The Godhead is never an object of its own knowledge. Just as a knife doesn’t cut itself, fire doesn’t burn itself; light doesn’t illuminate itself. It’s always an endless mystery to itself. I don’t know. And this I don’t know you uttered in the infinite interior of the spirit, this I don’t know, is the same thing as, I love, I let go. I don’t try to force or control. It’s the same thing as humility.”

So if we do not know, and we must experiment to find what we want to do, then how do we know when to stop looking? There is, unfortunately, no metric or measure for meaning. Many texts help us to establish the proper way, but it comes down to the individuals choice on what to:

“There’s constraints on what you should regard as a value, but within those constraints you have the choice. You have choice. The thing is that people will carry a heavy load if they get to pick the load.” - Jordan Peterson

The thing to note here is that most people think that they want to seek leisure. That is to say, they’d rather be on vacation, than working. The ironic part is that the only reason people would rather be on vacation is that socially “working” is unacceptable; it’s a sort of hell. Now, work is only hell when we feel like we have no choice. If we realize that we have an opportunity, albeit constrained by morals, values, and life circumstances, then we can start to feel much better about our current and future situations.

“Pursue What is Meaningful, Not What is Expedient” - Jordan Peterson

“There is little difference between sacrifice and work. They are also both uniquely human. Sometimes, animals act as if they are working, but they are really only following the dictates of their nature. Beavers build dams. They do so because they are beavers, and beavers build dams. They don’t think, ‘Yeah, but I’d rather be on a beach in Mexico with my girlfriend’ while they’re doing it.” - Jordan Peterson

In the end, it seems like we should be asking ourselves, what are we willing to sacrifice to attain the goals that we have set in place. Alternatively, what aims would we need to arrange to be prepared to make the appropriate (and often severe) sacrifices in our everyday lives? What would make life worth living? Alternatively, for perhaps what would make our lives worth dying?

Maybe if we realize that selflessness is the ultimate selfish act, we will start to behave in ways that we can make the world better for all those around us. As we create a better space for others, we improve our area inherently, both in the sense of an enhanced space along with increased interaction with other human beings. We are social creatures, and positive social feedback does us many wonders.

Life is seemingly a series of tradeoffs. If we choose security, then that is usually at the cost of freedom. We must commit to some goal, but that is at the expense of not pursuing the infinite set of alternatives. So then, we must deem what we are seeking to have paramount importance as we are trading the ENTIRE set of other options, for this one goal-directed path forward.

Navigating an amorphous solution

“This coming to a standstill is a psychic occurrence so often repeated in the evolution of mankind, that it has become the theme of many a fairy-tale and myth...We might put it in this way: “getting stuck” is a typical event which, in the course of time, has evoked typical reactions and compensations. We may, therefore, expect with a certain degree of probability that something similar will appear in the reactions of the unconscious, as, for example, in dreams.” Pg. 71  [1]

We can conclude that getting stuck is a normal part of the human process. If we have the tools in our kit, they can help us to move past it, but they will never prevent it and potentially won’t help us to walk through it. Getting stuck is a part of our subjective experience, which is connected to parts of our mind about which we know little. This concept is further complicated by societies move toward a quick fix, a band-aid, a pill to treat the symptoms without fully understanding the cause.

“As for so-called normal people, I am even worse off in their regard, for I have no ready-made life-philosophy to hand out to them. In the majority of my cases, the resources of consciousness have been exhausted; the ordinary expression for this situation is: “I am stuck.” Pg. 70  [1]

“I do not know any better than he. I know only one thing, that when to my conscious outlook there is no possible way of going ahead, and I am therefore “stuck”, my unconscious will react to the unbearable standstill.” Pg. 71  [1]

“This something is of course not of such a kind that we can boast of its scientific nature or rationalize it, but it is a practical and important hint which shows the patient in what direction the unconscious is leading him.” Pg. 72  [1]

It seems as though if we are willing to take a step back and connect with the flow of life that we can accept the feeling of being “lost” or “stuck.” The way that I see it is by being lost, we inherently become stuck. Lost means without a sense of direction, and without knowledge of a course, we do not move forward. Because we are goal-oriented and goal-directed beings, it is critical that we have a clear vision of where we want to go. The tricky thing is determining what is necessary enough for us to pursue with relentless vigor. As far as I can tell, the most critical aspect amongst all of it is to keep moving, trying, and experimenting. Once we give up and lay down into a life of mere existence, then it is over.

“We need to know four things: what there is, what to do about what there is, that there is a difference between knowing what there is, and knowing what to do about what there is and what that difference is.” Pg. 2 [2]


[1] “Modern Man in Search of a Soul,” Nature, vol. 132, no. 3342. pp. 767–767, 1933.

[2]    J. B. Peterson, “Maps of Meaning,” Maps of Meaning. pp. 19–217, 2002.