View this post on Instagram
It was Emerson who remarked that many men lead lives of quiet desperation.
This line is often seen quoted in bold, pasted over a faded picture of a symbol of an extravagant lifestyle, and then posted onto the Instagram timeline of a motivational account, or hung onto the wall of a college dorm.
This line has become synonymous with the chasing of a superfluous lifestyle and the avoidance of the “desperation” of living in the nine-to-five hell that many of our peers seem to succumb to.
“Don’t be a sheep, don’t fall into the modern American trap, strive and work hard for a life that will put you above all of it, become wealthy, and achieve all of the things that you believe that you actually want. Only then will you avoid a life of quiet desperation.”
The transcendentalists, especially Emerson’s pupil, Henry David Thoreau, often liked to push social norms (they were very much progressive for their time) and pushed back on society and its institutions that corrupt us. Being a blind slave to a job and a lifestyle that continued to eat away at your soul, living in a quiet desperation was not likened to living in a manner in agreement with Emerson.
However, Emerson, who went by Waldo, and was one of the great American philosophers, did not seem to mean his words in the way in which they are taken now. The transcendentalists were also against materialism, and living your life with the aim of achieving enough money and materials to rise above the masses is just as desperate as blindly being one of the masses.
So is adopting values for approval, striving for achievement in an effort to be admired, and working just to gather more things. This is why Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Striving to become the greatest, in an effort to ease the emptiness inside of us, to make us feel as though we are worthy or above others, and with the idea that we will finally feel accomplished and valued, is desperate.
Living life in adherence to absorbed values that we get from talk TV, our timeline, or the Twitter mob, and living in a manner to please them, is corrupting our soul. As well, continuing to delegate to the backburner and ignore the true being inside of us and their dreams and goals so that we can continue down the path that was preselected by us, or by our parents, or society, or a younger, less knowledgeable us is living in desperation.
Emerson and Thoreau understood how easy it was to fall into the trap of desperation. How, if we follow every step down the path we are told to go down and achieve and strive for all of the things we are told we should achieve and strive for, we will find ourselves in a place where our priorities are jaded, our lives are cluttered, and our minds are corrupt.
They understood how our society tells us what is right, shames what is wrong, and guides us in certain directions. Following down these paths and adopting these values without question, without deep reflection, leads us astray.
We can see this in Thoreau’s quote, “I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.”
It is only in looking deep inside for guiding principles that we escape desperation. It is when we forgo the need to feel valued and accepted by a society that forces us to compromise and sell ourselves short. It is when we are okay being the outcast, as illustrated in this quote:
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti
This is why Thoreau realized that he had to leave society in order to find himself. In his reflections, he wrote, “I have come to the woods to learn to live deliberately, and not to find that when I come to die that I have not lived.”
The quiet desperation that most men live lives of is the desperation of striving for a goal in the hopes that it will produce a feeling, and that that feeling will provide relief or satisfaction. It is the falsified promise spoon-fed to us that only once we achieve, only once we succeed, only then will we feel the emptiness inside of us start to deteriorate, and the eternal longing start to cease. Only when we are successful, will we be loved.
However, as we begin to succeed, we realize that the finish line just seems to get further and further away. That the void in the depths of our being longs for more, and so we double down, attempting to become satisfied with new possessions and folly admirations.
Only this doesn’t work, and like an addiction, our tolerance skyrockets. We find ourselves pushing further and further into the world of external validation, chasing high and high, each time outdoing our last. As our souls begin to scream to us, we double down, stuffing more and more inside, hoping, praying that the next achievement will be enough, that we may finally be admired so much, have obtained so much, that we will be satisfied.
But we never are. So we chase our tails, going round and round like a dog who hasn’t realized that if he just stops, so too will his tail. This is a quiet desperation.
It has a flip side too, but both are two sides of the same coin. We continuously hunt for morsels of entertainment, jumping from stimulus to stimulus in an effort to avoid a mere second of silence, a mere moment of isolated thought.
This quiet desperation also comes when we are unable to be alone, to sit with our minds, to avoid the spiraling downfalls of modern, media-based entertainment, when we look for anything to save us from ourselves. In both settings, we are using something external in an attempt to validate ourselves, to distract ourselves from the dreadful doubt, the existential angst, the longing emptiness inside, and so therefore we never actually get better; we never get off of this hamster wheel.
We continue to use relationships, social media, television shows, money, achievements, other people as a way to divert our minds, to subdue our fears, and to cripple ourselves. Living in this manner, we never find ourselves, we never escape the trappings of society, and we find ourselves, 10, 20 years down the road that we were forced down, or that we never stopped to question, and we feel the sting as the cold knife of regret is pierced into us.
But that is too painful to accept, so we drown it out, we continue to live face down, we continue in this quiet desperation, hoping that the next achievement, next person, next show will be the thing that saves us and finally brings us peace.
We step out of the cycle of desperation when we are able to find love inside, when we are able to look ourselves in the mirror and not have to drown out the shame that encapsulates us.
When we stop playing the game because there is no way to win it. When we prioritize others over ourselves, using love as a currency to buy enough that we finally start to feel whole. When we overcome the fear of being ourselves, of being rejected, of living life in a manner that feels all alone. We find the self that Thoreau sought when we are able to sit with ourselves, be with ourselves without giving in to the consistent impulse to distract, to step away, to look for peace elsewhere.
This takes courage, to be clear. It is scary stepping outside of the norm. It is scary to question others, to stake your faith in yourself. It is equally terrifying to say that, no matter the short-term pain, I am going to see this through. (I oft like to imagine Thoreau during his first week in his cabin in the woods. Once the shine wore off, and the high of pushing back against society faded, I only imagine that the deafening silence, the echoing loneliness, and the fear of missing out, or being passed up was overwhelming.)
The only way to avoid a life of quiet desperation is to be brutally honest with ourselves. To not succumb to the trappings of a society that forces us to buy, pose, share, and like. To be different in a manner that is authentic. To have the courage to look life in its eyes, and say no to what isn’t our path, and to say yes to what is. Avoiding this isn’t easy, hence why most of us never do.