Thoreau said, correctly I’m afraid, that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And I don’t presume that he meant to exclude women from that observation.
I’m not sure precisely what he meant but I think that nearly all of us feel quietly bound to certain circumstances in our lives with little power to better our situations. I know that I feel exactly that way at times. We spin, we toil, we spin some more. None of it fulfilling us, none of it easing the numbness of same old, same old. If we try to outpace it, it’s like trying to escape a swarm of mosquitos on a still summer night. So we quietly accept the dullness and sink ever deeper into its ubiquity.
I am acutely aware of the human tendency to live in this experience yet my ability to recognize seems to not carry with it any ability to transcend. I’m not trying at all to strike a melancholy tone and I don’t type this out of the slightest sense of darkness. In fact, I’m feeling rather on the lighter side right now. So what’s my point?
My point, this Easter weekend, is that I cannot believe my choices are meaningless, that life is random or absurd or that I am bound to quiet desperation. Sarte made the point in “No Exit” that we make our own hell. I have the capability of walking out. I may step into a new hell or I may step out into sunshine. All I know is that I can leave, I can try, I can try again.
As a younger man, I thought more as a deist. I may have thought God existed and set the world spinning but otherwise walked away. Then I faced death, literally, with a severe stroke from which I was not expected to recover. Then I faced a lifetime sentence of paralysis and severe cognitive disability. Then I walked and regained my mind (as far as I know):). Then I faced death again when diagnosed with cancer. I saw it in the doctor’s face and heard it in his words “I’m so sorry, Dan”.
But I’m still here almost two years later. Why? I still feel bound to a quiet and desperate life but I at least think I may have come to understand that the point of human existence is to love one another. And the point is not to love in order to make myself jolly. The point is that our self-centeredness is foundational to our lives of quiet desperation. We do well to move our focus away from our own “happiness” because we will never drink of it, like Tantalus in the pool of water. Does this mean that we need to cheer everyone else up? No. I have no control over others’ reaction to me. The point is simply to love. I am not required to dwell in self-analysis. I am not required to concern myself with how others evaluate me. Again, the point is to love. One need go no further than that.
But what of my own happiness? Is it unimportant? Is it random? I’m not sure but somehow I think that giving up its pursuit may be the key to finding it, often in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. We need not script life. We are foolish to even try. We are like the characters in a novel. We don’t know what will happen in the next chapter and we certainly are not the novelist. I don’t have all of this figured out but, fortunately I’m still here and I have more time to learn. Along the way, I just may see the sublime, the beautiful, the simple or even God — I don’t know.
To the extent I understand Kierkegaard, I believe he thought that “God exists because I need him to”. Amen to that. Happy Easter.
April 19, 2013
Copyright 2013 Daniel Blake