Friday, August 10, 2012

A life of quiet desperation

I recently watched the thought-provoking film Revolutionary Road and was reminded of Henry David Thoreau's observation in Walden that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."  The movie captures so well the void that many people feel in their lives.  We attempt to fill it with possessions and accolades, thinking that these things will make us happy.  When they don't (or not as fully as we hoped), we seek more of them in an endless cycle of disappointment.  

Many of us wonder at times whether, as Thoreau noted, our "resignation is confirmed desperation."  Have we resigned ourselves to dissatisfaction?  We have worked hard to reach a place of relative comfort and security — but we’re still dissatisfied.  We feel comfortable but trapped at the same time.  We've conceded to our fears and refuse to go outside of our comfort zones.  We wonder whether we have missed our chance for happiness.

Often, comfort and security are curses rather than blessings.  I once heard them described as a warm blanket on a chilly day.  It is too easy and tempting to stay with them.  When you’re dissatisfied, you need to venture out into the cold unknown, even if that means a short-term decline in your happiness.  If you don’t, you’ll die comfortable — and still dissatisfied.  

To Thoreau, we attach too much value to things like careers and possessions.  A happy life is found in simplicity, and only in stripping life to the essentials can we find true fulfillment.  

I understand Thoreau's reasons for going to Walden Pond on a much more personal level now.  Like Thoreau, I want "to live deliberately" and see if I can learn what life has to teach, so that when I approach death, I won't "discover that I had not lived."  

What I fear most is the realization that I have wasted my life.  I already feel that my former religion denied me many of life's experiences due to its unreasonable restrictions and time demands  Having lost my faith in God, I know my existence is limited, much more so than I ever conceived.  It is for this reason that Steve Jobs' Stanford commencement speech is so meaningful to me.  The speech, when he penned himself, is particularly poignant because Jobs knew he was dying of cancer.
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” [Stanford commencement speech, June 2005]
This is why I have rejected the dogma of my former religion.  I was "living the results of other people's thinking."  I was losing my inner voice.  I was becoming resigned to a life of quiet desperation.

I am not trying to be fatalistic, only pragmatic.  Life is short, and I want to experience all it has to offer.  I want to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."   But how do I do that with the golden manacles of a busy law practice and a complex life?  Will I be able to find balance without having to retreat into my own version Walden Pond?  I hope so, but my life is a tale that is yet unwritten, and it seems to be moving more quickly with each passing year.


  1. Wow. Thanks for writing this. I think I've needed this to help motivate me to ditch my comfortable blanket to go risk the cold.

    Zack Tacorin

  2. Thanks for this. I am going to check this movie out.

  3. I finished watching the movie. It was really good. I think most people question their life decisions. I know I do. I am not happy, but I am not unhappy. Just neutral unfortunately, and I see no solution.

  4. Great article! An inspiration.

    What are your further thoughts(if applicable) on the "need to venture out into the cold unknown", "living deeply and sucking out all the marrow of life.", the inner voice, and "a tale that is yet unwritten."?


  5. Excellent question. I suppose these terms would mean different things to different people. Here is my take.

    With regard to "venturing out into the cold unknown," I am a lawyer, but my "bliss" is teaching. I am comfortable being a lawyer, and I like the things that money can buy. One step for me "into the cold unknown" might be to cut back my hours and "follow my bliss," as Joseph Campbell said.

    "Living deeply," I believe, means living the "examined life," as Socrates said. The opposite would be to live superficially. In practice, it probably means spending time each day considering the direction and meaning of your life. It is too easy to get stuck on autopilot and wake up only to realize that 10 years have gone by.

    To me, "sucking the marrow out of life" means a desire to experience every drop of life (like eating the meat to the bone and then sucking the marrow from the bone). A few ways I am trying to do this include skydiving, running marathons, and attending a great philosophy group.

    "Inner voice" means my instincts, my hopes and dreams, etc. It does not mean some external voice, such as the Holy Spirit. Most importantly, it does not mean the interpretations of others about how "God" expects me to live my life. I think that living in accordance with your inner voice brings contentment, which is one of the highest goals to which we can attain.

    Referring to my life as "a tale that is yet unwritten" is ironic because I am a determinist. However, *I* don't know my future (nor does God nor anything else), so it is a tale that is yet unwritten for me.

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  7. Does this analogy, in part, describe what you mean?

    “Have you ever gone running? You get up not at all enthusiastic about running but somehow feeling obligated. You reluctantly get dressed and begin your route. Slowly the discomfort fades and you begin to enjoy yourself. You find yourself in the rhythm. And then, on good days, at some point you break through an invisible barrier and begin to fly. Ecstatic, you lose yourself in the wind. Your body, the earth, the wind, the rhythms of your pace, the sound of your feet, all merge into one. It is no longer accurate, even if but for the briefest of moments to say "I am going running”. Rather, you are the running.”

  8. Great analogy. I run marathons, and that is precisely what happens to me. It usually doesn't happen until mile 15. This is one way, I believe, of "sucking the marrow out of life." Sex is about the only other way that I have seen to merge into the experience.