Why You Are In A Bad Place (And How To Get Out Of It)

bad place

I hate to admit it, but I have had various periods of my life where I have been in a bad, bad place.  Seasons where I felt trapped, like there was no escape hatch.  The sense that my life was completely not working.  That I was doomed to either continue on the same pointless treadmill- getting nowhere.  Striving and stressing and finding no way out.  Or worse, like the roof and walls were going to collapse on me and that I would slip into the black abyss.

Call this what you will: depression, existential angst, self-loathing, utter confusion, bad luck.  It was probably a twisted combination of all of these… and more.

This personal dread first struck in high school.  I was scrawny, socially awkward, seeking out youthful popularity and failing.  I could not climb to the summit of like-ability and I did not have the resources to just keep going.  I felt like my life was over before it even began.

The second period was about five years into my career as an Associate Pastor in a small town church.  There were many good people there, who were good to me, but rural life offered little to a suburbanite.  I was slowly figuring out that I had a mind, wrestling with various ideas, and it simply wasn’t the right context for that kind of endeavor. With a wife and small children depending on me, it seemed like I had to keep on- keeping on, for them.  But God, I was suffocating.

The third and final period was a few years later while I was working my arse off trying to get a new church off the ground.  Everything I knew to do, everything I believed, simply wasn’t working.  Traditionalists were urging me to return to the fold.  Progressives were urging me to be bold and reinvent the faith.  I tried both at various times and neither seemed to work.  Prayer didn’t work.  Talking with friends didn’t work.  Reading ministry “how-to” books didn’t work.  Nothing worked.

Bad places suck badly.

I Wasn’t Alone in the Bad Place and Neither Are You

Years later, I can now see that being in a bad place is all too common in late modern life.  In so many ways, we live in a post-human culture.

Glossy magazine covers and incessant advertisements prime us for discontentment.  Western capitalism runs on the frantic energy of all of us feeling like we are missing… something.  If we did not feel bereft, if our imaginations were not trained to sense that we are in a perpetual bad place, we would quit working to the bone and we would pass on buying things and maxing our credit cards on entertaining experiences.

On top of this, higher education and the internet’s supposed “information age” teach us one thing: that whatever we think we know, isn’t true after all.  Take any class from any educational institution and your Prof will do their darndest to make sure you realize that whatever you think is true, really isn’t.  (This is what gives them an unconscious feeling of worth.)  Google anything, on any topic, and you will find bright people arguing that something is true, and conversely, that it is false.  This is inescapable in our present age.

Finally, some forms of organized religion and traditional spirituality, at least in North America, is predicated on making you feel like you are in a bad place.  If they didn’t work hard to make you feel like you are either going to hell, or your loved ones are, or even better, that the whole world is- maybe you wouldn’t show up anymore?  Sadly, much of contemporary religion has unknowingly swallowed the ethos of advertisements, the information age, and the culture of Something Is Missing.  Churches, at their worst, add to our feeling of being in a bad place.  Pumping us with messages that we are believing the wrong things, or that we are believing disingenuously, so that we will keep coming back.

We live in the post-human culture of the perpetual bad place.

Wrong Solutions and Partial Solutions

In a strange cocktail of genuinely trying to help, mixed with the consumerist mantra of offering the one needed solution- various antidotes are peddled to us to resolve our shared experience of the bad place.

Some tell us we need therapy.  Some tell us we need to follow our dreams.  Some tell us we need to vote for a certain candidate.  Some tell us we need community.  Some tell us we need meds.  Some tell us we need a physical make over.  Some tell us we need to learn to love ourselves.  Some tell us that we need to find someone to love. Some tell us we need to take a stand against those who put us down.  Some tell us we need to let down our hair and have fun.  Some tell us we need a mission statement.  Some tell us we need to serve the less fortunate.  Some tell us we need an education. Some tell us we need positive thinking.  Some tell us we need to read the Bible.

When we listen to all of these potential offers the bad place only seems to grow wider, deeper, and more inevitable.

A Humble Suggestion

Admittedly, I feel a bit awkward offering another type of possible solution.  But then again, you are reading this, aren’t you?  I suppose all I can do is share with you what I personally have found helpful.  If it leads you to find a ladder out of the bad place- great.  If not, I guess you haven’t lost anything.  Right?

The hard to classify, self-taught philosopher Ken Wilber calls his project integral living.  I certainly do not agree with him on everything, but I have learned from him.  In short, he believes that much of our culture is experienced as post-human and that by default, we are disintegrated.  We look for the one sure-thing here, and then there, and none of them work all by themselves.  And yet, many of these potential paths do offer us something of value.

Wilber maintains that to live as a thriving human being we need all of them.  And at least from my experience, I think he is right.

The way to climb out of the bad place = intentional meditative spirituality + intentional psychological therapy + intentional bodily exercise + intentional intellectual learning.

Most people think only one of these activities is the ultimate answer and to Wilber, that is the essence of the problem.  Leaders in all of these different spheres preach to us that their way is all that we need.  This is part of why we begin to warp, slip into a bad place, and then eventually think of it as another steaming pile of B.S.  We need all of these activities in every season of our life.

Genuine spirituality provides a sense of meaning.  We read Scriptures, we pray, we sense or Creator’s love and presence- we find meaning.

Therapy or counseling provides an analysis of our particular struggles.  We share it all, we get feedback- we learn about ourselves.

Working out strengthens our bodies and often strengthens our resolve.  As our physique tones, natural endorphins give us a sense of vitality- that we do not have to be weak defeatists.

Reading heady books provides us with new angles in which to see everything.  New ideas and new insights help us to see various possibilities that we never previously considered.

I imagine you may be thinking, Well, even if there is something to this, I don’t have time for all of this stuff. 

This is an understandable reaction.  But let me ask you something.  Do you really have time to keep rolling around in the bad place?  What all is the darkness sucking from you?  How much energy does it take to just keep going when the black clouds won’t disperse?  Can you afford to ignore integration?  Really?

I maintain, from my own experience, if you make time to pursue these various experiences (and not simply think about them) you will be surprised at how quickly you will make your way out of the bad place.  And for each step on the ladder you take, you will find that you actually have more and more time to get other stuff done.  When we are no longer in a bad place, when we are emerging into a good one, despite our busyness, everything feels very possible and quite manageable.

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