Thursday, September 28, 2017

Lives of Quiet Desperation

We’ve all seen memes like this circulating social media, encouraging us towards kindness. We’ve read stories about the waitress with a sick child at home, the elderly neighbor who has no visitors, the special needs child excluded from dance class. These nuggets of inspiration and these stories, be they true or not, serve to remind us of our shared humanity. They remind us to take a real look at that person at the gas station, in the park or restaurant, and to imagine what struggles they may be facing, what heavy burdens they might be carrying.

Running is a mostly solitary endeavor and when I’m out on the sidewalks of my neighborhood, most of the people I pass are alone too. I find myself often thinking about a phrase—lives of quiet desperation—and I’ll come home and look for the quote again. It’s from Thoreau, the literary world’s expert on solitariness.

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things."                       –Henry David Thoreau

This is, of course, from Walden, Thoreau’s writings about his two-year experiment living in the woods near Walden Pond. His goal: “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” What Thoreau found, after comparing life in the city to that of the country, was that men were basically the same everywhere. His “quiet desperation” refers to man’s desire to accumulate more and more material things, which requires him to work, worry and want, and to lose touch with not only the natural world but also with any chance for inner freedom.

This seems reasonably argued, but I think the whole idea of a life of quiet desperation can be embraced in a much larger context. In a universal, meme-worthy context. And while empathy is certainly a useful human function, it’s essential for a writer. When I pass an older woman walking, head down, hands shoved in her pockets, I imagine what types of problems await her back at home, behind closed doors. When a driver speeds around a corner, tires squealing, I wonder what drama is about to unfold when he gets where he’s going. What has he forgotten? Whom is he angry with? Whom is he avoiding?

Sometimes this tendency to look for trouble feels pessimistic, even condescending. What if that older woman is perfectly content, basking in some wonderful memory as she walks along? What if the driver is hurrying home to see his newborn daughter? It’s what we do, I guess, we writers. We’re constantly on the lookout for human problems, for people whose lives we can imagine as quietly desperate. Does that make us empathetic or selfish? Insightful or unrealistic? I’m not sure. If Thoreau were alive today, he’d most likely be using terms like centered and presence, and he certainly would be writing about taking time to observe the world around us. Maybe some of us just have a peculiar way of doing that.

"I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” ---also Thoreau, from Walden




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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka