At the start of 2021 I had a breakdown. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, given the previous (pandemic) year we’d collectively endured. Before we all went into the first of the UK’s lockdowns I was the happiest I’d been in a long time – a blossoming relationship with a woman I was madly in love with, an impressive new work contract at a top creative agency, and concrete plans to get my feet on the London property ladder. I was finally, after a challenging few years, ‘ticking the boxes’.

But in those next 10 months all my best-laid plans fell apart. My job was the first to go, as the events industry I worked in ground to a halt. And, with it, my dreams of buying a flat any time soon. I spent much of that year living isolated from friends and family, and 100 miles from my new love. As the uncertainty of lockdown after lockdown rolled on, I found myself torn between waiting it out to pick up with my existing plans, or looking to move industry and make an early exit from London in order to be closer to my girlfriend.

I didn’t handle this uncertainty well. I was lonely and depressed, my self-esteem plummeted, and our relationship strained under the pressures of emotional stress, longdistance and a global pandemic. We broke up just after New Year, in a horrible mess of miscommunication, and the UK went straight back into lockdown for another four months.

I was in freefall. I’d tried to do what I thought was right throughout and was struggling to come to terms with how I’d lost everything. I was full of shame for not having been able to handle things better. I went back to work but could barely function and my contract was terminated, again, after just a few months. It all felt so meaningless.

Looking back now, I understand how much of what happened was outside of my control, but at the time I took it personally. I couldn’t figure out how I’d lost my sense of self-worth so dramatically and felt like I didn’t know who I was any more. For 18 months I searched frantically for any answers, teachings and guidance I could get my hands on, to try and put myself back together. It culminated with a stint at a Vipassana centre for a 10-day silent meditation retreat that a friend suggested would be a good place to wrestle with the ruminating thoughts I was still plagued with.

After eight days of confronting my pain, I thought I’d made things worse. It was relentless and I lost all hope. But on the ninth day, something clicked. Like a thunderbolt, suddenly, I found a cohesive narrative for everything I’d been through. The way I’d attached my self-worth to external evidence of my success that could so easily be taken away, and how I had been oblivious to the core, internal values that actually shape my true character. I gained powerful insight into the dynamics at play in my relationships and what was really needed from me. It felt like waking up from a dream and seeing the world for the first time – realising that everything I believed about where my priorities and values should lie had been completely back to front. I was now standing outside looking back at our culture and deeply understanding how we’ve been led to chase the external and material at the expense of our own inherent joy and meaning.

The 16th-century mystic St John of the Cross coined the term ‘dark night of the soul’ to refer to these periods of hopelessness and disenchantment that often precede an awakening experience. While I’m certainly not claiming any level of spiritual enlightenment, I now know that it was specifically through my time down in the darkness – needing to admit that I was broken and to grieve the things I’d lost – that I learned what was needed to allow myself to be open to a higher perspective.

I say all this because I believe humanity is going through its own dark night of the soul. From my own journey I understand how feelings of isolation and disillusionment caused me to become fixated on myself because I thought there was something wrong with me. I see this throughout our culture. Our disconnection from Nature, the addictive influence of social media, and the way we build our communities have so many of us feeling like we don’t belong. We are tribal creatures and we experience this loneliness as a threat to our survival. We’re in a collective trauma response – anxiously accumulating more material evidence of our worth and chasing attention in more extreme ways in an attempt to feel seen. We witness it in art, fashion, politics and celebrity culture, as people continually act more provocatively, or in more sexualised or more extreme ways because they think more is needed to stand out. Our desperation for connection and meaning is a runaway train heading squarely in the wrong direction.

Reversing this will need deliberate effort from each of us, individually, to clarify our core, internal values and what we stand for, to consciously identify what we truly need and, when we have ‘enough’, to prioritise engaging with and building up our communities, and to put more back into our systems than we take. We each need to define these areas as best we can and choose to step up and be the change we wish to see in the world – building connected and fulfilling ways of living for ourselves, to the point where its inherent value is undeniable.

We can’t expect to influence people who are fully benefiting from the current systems by telling them to change. Just as it took a moment of absolute hopelessness to crack me open, it is through our collective pain and isolation that we will, one by one, accept that things aren’t working and open ourselves to something new. My experience of rebirth, and the enchantment I now feel in front of a universe that I see as willing us all on, gives me the hope that all of humanity will get there too. We are deep in the shadows right now and undoubtedly there’s more to come. But I keep my faith and remember it’s always darkest before the dawn.

James Garside now works as a coach, helping men who feel lost and disillusioned with life find their way back to meaning by processing their experiences and reconnecting with their values. He also writes music for meditation and raving. Not at the same time. Find out more about his work at Instagram @jamesgarside