Rainbows and bunny rabbits—some live in a fantasy world. I’m okay with that. This isn’t the world I live in. I have a good life, wonderful wife, comfortable house and a running car. I seldom go hungry and when I do it’s because of poor-planning, and bothersome distractions—not insufficient resources. But no matter how much exercise, yoga and positive endeavors, the wrecking ball of reality forcefully swings and knocks me on my butt. Skinned knees and bloodied elbows I crawl, then walk and then stand tall again—until the next burst of reality strikes. Why do we stay stuck in our life of desperation? We must bust through these self imposed limitations and flourish.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (1854). He explains that “but men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before” (p. 3).
However, life doesn’t suck; it just is. Neither designed for flourishing or floundering; the universe is survival friendly. Species naturally tend for their young until their young are sufficiently strong to survive outside the nest or nursery. Thoreau is referring to our capitalistic striving for more while ignoring all the beauties that life has to offer.
At some point in this rat race, we either tire of striving for something that alludes us, or desperately fight to maintain what we have gained. Some give up. Others blindly chase unsatisfied ambitions to their grave.
Human Survival and Desperation
Survival for young requires complete reliance on caregivers. A young child cannot face the complexities of this world; it’s too dangerous. Humans heavily dependent on brains and not brawn require extensive nurturing, waiting for learning to catch-up with their physical development. We need smarts to survive and wisdom to flourish, implementing strategies to work through the peculiarities of our society and human challenges.
During childhood, guided and protected by caregivers, we learn essential survival skills and the fortunate, living in nurturing rich environments, are introduced to flourishing. Before being pushed into the uncertain (and sometimes uncaring) world, we are trained. Childhood training isn’t equal. Caregivers bring varying resources to parenting. Some parents conscientiously prepare their children while others haphazardly drag them through their chaotic life of desperation.
Success as adults is correlated with healthy up-bringing; but we’re not sentenced to failure when parenting was poor. Amazingly, the human drive can change the trajectory. We can take what was given and succeed. New wise choices ease future difficulties; developing skills that sharpen our responses. Careless choices magnify difficulties ruining the boost of a healthy childhood or magnifying the challenges learned from the past.
Those least prepared tend to make the poorest choices, creating even more difficulties to overcome, with limited skills and narrow approaches, they then face an increasingly difficult life.
Fear of Uncertainty
Adults usually meet life’s demands. We’re survivors. I’ve worked in a large city for nearly two decades. I’ve become familiar with many of the faces and stories wandering, sleeping and living within the small confines of the City Park and giant buildings. Survivors. Many have lived on the streets for decades. They survive. They find food and shelter to survive. The stresses stretch their mental resources, borrowing energy for growth to focus on mere survival.
Many of these survivors suffered childhoods parched from neglect. Instead of healthy habits, they found debilitating addictions to sooth the pain, creating a puzzle nearly impossible to solve. So instead of try, we comfortably fail, stuck in our life of desperation.
Preparation for Unseen Future Threats
Unlike the small child, adults possess a greater foundation to judge experience, more aware of hidden dangers. We can prepare for unseen threats, accidents, and sicknesses—even death. Part of us longs for the childhood security of loving caregivers that governed and protected our lives. But childhood security came with vulnerability. Complete protection requires complete dependence. A dangerous combination in adult relationships, creating susceptibility to abuse.
We experience fear when confronted with uncertainties. But success demands continue to act, moving according to expected outcomes without certainty of success. The courageous accept this uncertainty, trusting in their strength and leaning on outside support. Condemned to live with uncertainty, we must manage fear and act with confidence. If we agonize over the unknowns, anxiety decreases opportunities for growth, forcing more attention to survival. Too much fear stagnates growth.
We avoid novel experiences, because of distasteful pasts with novelty. Our fear impacts the future. Avoidance offers security but with a heavy cost. Unhappy relationships continue, unfulfilling jobs remain, and dissatisfaction spreads. We complain about the pain but fail to create a remedy to change reoccurring themes. Our complaints fulfill a need, fooling the mind, addressing the discomfort, but never implementing an active solution.
Suffering and Life of Desperation
We don’t choose to suffer. We just do. Consequently, we live in fear of the unknowns while enduring dissatisfaction of the known; secretly living in quiet desperation. An escape requires venturing into the darkness of our fears—abandoning the security of the known and creating a change. We stagnate when fears blindly push us into the mire; our reactionary habits keep the richness of life beyond our grasp. Habits created for protection confine us to the same miseries. We mortgage futures by protecting the present; but keep agonies of unfulfillment alive.
Susan Jeffers wrote that “when you are in the throes of desperation, there seems to be little you can do to make yourself feel better” (Jeffers, 2023). Desperation is like a black hole, pulling us deeper and deeper into the hopelessness. We must fight these feelings like our flourishing life depends on it. Because it does. We must maintain hope in the future while simultaneously enjoying the present.
We can’t change patterns without recognition of their existence. By examining our lives, we reveal hidden habits, quietly serving the present, steering us clear of anxiety necessary for growth.
We fail in many ways. But failures provide insights and wisdom. Failing to try offers very little. The call is to wake up! Expose the destructive patterns of avoidance creating the quiet desperation of an unfulfilled life.
Jeffers, Susan (2023). Feel the Fear… and Do It Anyway: Dynamic Techniques for Turning Fear, Indecision, and Anger into Power, Action, and Love. Harvest.
Thoreau, Henry David (1854/2017). Walden. Life in the Woods. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.