‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’ – Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau was right, but he was also wrong.
We don’t live our lives with desperation tucked away out of sight, it can be seen by everyone.
There’s little in how we live our lives that is not a desperate attempt to achieve something. Fame, fortune, possessions, job, social circle, finding a partner and more.
We want so much, need so much and we work so hard to try and get it. A job we hate, the buying of things we don’t need, settling for less and so on.
It’s an attempt to create meaning in our lives, to achieve something worthwhile and be happy whilst we live.
We don’t seem to realise that much of what we strive for isn’t possible.
We ask ‘why we are here’, we want to be free of pain and suffering. We want answers and explanations because with such clarity we can take action without a doubt or uncertainty.
We want to be in control of things so that our attempts are successful, and we can protect ourselves. We don’t want to make mistakes because it’s embarrassing and opens us up to ridicule.
We don’t want to be afraid. It is what stops us from growing and changing and most of all we don’t want to die.
It doesn’t work however, because this desperate searching to be free from suffering only makes us unhappy.
Our desperation is far from being hidden…
You can see the desperation it around you.
It might be stuffing your face with food as a way to make yourself feel better and ending up overweight and out of shape. We can also seek sex, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes for the same reasons.
It can be filling up your home with possessions to prove to everyone that you have status and power.
We voice opinions we don’t hold in order to fit into a group and not feel so alone.
We lash out with anger and frustration at others because they said something we didn’t like and the world has to conform to our expectations. We also get angry at those who don’t believe what we believe.
We procrastinate and avoid doing the work important to us because we’re afraid or feel undeserving of success.
Fits of rage, prejudice and hatred that cause us to blame the innocent or lash out and hurt others.
Our desperation expresses in our biology. Problems with digestion, skin outbreaks, heart palpitations, headaches and more.
We become ill with disease due to the stress of our desperation and our inability to prioritise what matters most.
Screaming matches with our partner, passive-aggressive actions towards our boss, cheat, lie, steal and so much more.
We also seek solutions to our desperation
We take up spiritual practices to silence our unhappiness. Read self-help books, go to seminars and workshops. See medical help through doctors and alternative medicine.
We talk to our friends, connect with others online to assuage our loneliness. Join clubs and sign up for classes to learn new skills and meet new people.
Try out new years resolutions to get our lives back on track. Go to the gym, join a running club to get fit and healthy. Try fad diets to lose those pounds.
So much of what we do is to repair and heal the suffering we face.
In society we have health services to help us deal with the suffering we face. Libraries of knowledge to tell us how things work.
Looking at humanity as a whole you can see that so much of what we do is about our safety and security. We have the physical landscape of buildings and clothing to protect us from the elements.
Systems of thought or bodies of knowledge/ideas including Scientific, religious, philosophical. So we explain what’s going on and define our place in this world. Laws and morals to govern behaviour and protect us.
Organisations, so people can group together. Bodies of language so we can communicate and connect and not feel so alone.
It’s why I call it the Humanity Project, a massive building enterprise to give us the illusion of safety.
We are well-meaning but our efforts often fall short
We ‘fall-of-the-wagon’ and give up on the diet, forget to exercise.
We continue to procrastinate, forget our goals and needs in life. Pretend we don’t care, turn our backs on the things and people that matter to us.
Our vision of a better life gets lost, forgotten because it seems too hard to find.
We fail, get distracted, forget, mess up again and again. Our frustration causes our anger to boil over. Despair and anguish for not being good enough.
We want to help others so we send an invading army that smashes up a country in the hopes of making things better. We want an economic growth but the price is pollution and destruction of the environment. We create huge arsenals of weapons, and go to war to help the world become more peaceful.
More promising, however…
We become healers and commit to helping those who suffer
We become Scientists, theologians and philosophers to find the important answers. We become activists and work to highlight injustice, and improve society.
Conservationists to undo the damage we have done to this world.
We create communities and organisations to help people live together and feel more connected.
We create art to express ourselves and create new meaning or offer new ideas.
Our desperation can manifest itself in the best of intentions, and the worst of results. It shows up in our flailing, haphazard attempts to make a better life, a better world. From the outside, it can seem comical, absurd how much we try and fail. Yet it shows us what it means to be human. To be desperately wanting and trying, then trying again.
Society and culture represent a collective expression of our hopes, dreams, fears, and mistakes.
It’s the struggle we face and the struggle that shapes who we are, and what we become.
Our desperation is writ large upon our lives and this upon the world.