Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Embracing Desperation

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” - Thoreau.

Why do people lead lives of desperation? What are we desperate for? What do we want? What are our desires?

I think our desires, I think our desperations, give us a reason to live. I think if you cultivate that desperation, if you manage it and direct it, it will become productive.

I think our society overwhelms us with cheap antidotes to our desperation that are not worth the price. I think we sacrifice too much of our long term potential for short-term gratification.

I think we should acknowledge freely that much of our lives is spent in a state of desperation, but I think this desperation, this longing, can lead us to produce acts of beauty and kindness.

I think this desperation can leads us to be empathetic. It can also lead us to be single-minded and selfish.

We are nearly always desperate: so what are we going to do about it?

I think society refuses to acknowledge our desperation. It doesn’t sell. It’s not glamorous.

It’s been said that the truth will set you free. Perhaps, but more likely: the truth will set you adrift. But is that such a bad thing - isn’t that what freedom means? Isn’t that what freedom is – bearing some responsibility to set your own course?

Our desperation is our reason for being. Our quest for truth is our reason for knowledge: its absence compels us to find it.

When we don’t have something, that’s when we want it. If we never lacked, we would never have the joy of finding anything. Of course, if we never lacked, maybe we would have a different joy. It all depends upon whether we can appreciate what we have and where we are. If we didn’t lack, but could still appreciate our condition somehow, I don’t think we would be worse off.

Yes, we’re so desperate and gullible and afraid. That’s why advertising and propaganda succeed.

Yet it brings us together, and it tears us apart. We’re all desperate and gullible and afraid.

We all lack – we all find. It brings us together.

Quiet desperation is chronically undervalued – it’s used as a slur. It’s used as the symbol of the mid-life crisis. Life is crisis – life is change – life is transience. Why can’t we recognize and accept this?

We should accept nothing less than lives of quiet desperation.

Desperation is the basis for action – I think Thoreau wants us to be active. I don’t think he’s maligning the act of desperation so much as he is saying that it is not all that is necessary – that there is more to it than that.

If all we did was stay in the state of desperation, we will fail. That is what I believe he is trying to say, and I agree with that.

We can’t just experience desperation; we’ve also got to act. But our desperation can serve as our foundation for our actions.

But what kind of foundation are we building? Exactly what do we desire and why?

Most of our lives are not built on a strong foundation. What kind of desperation are we dealing with?

There are many corrosive desperations: fear and paranoia abound.

You can never be sure where you are. Sometimes, you do something with the best of intentions and it turns out horribly wrong.

If we never think about our desperations, and we leave them alone, then everything else that we do will be worse, because our desperations are what lie at the beginning of everything. We must check ourselves and our desperations because they are the foundation of everything we do.

We must ensure that our desperation is used for the benefit of others and not for ourselves alone.


Matt said...

I believe the desperation you speak of comes from a desire we cannot meet.

"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

-CS Lewis

Alex said...

When I read the first half of your comment, I knew what the second half would say.

I know, right? Crazy. But we're not crazy - just thoughtful.

Anyway...I've been thinking about that quote recently.

This may shock you, but I'm actually re-reading the book from which that quote is an excerpt.

As you may or may not remember, I have read it twice, but I just have a dim remembrance of it, and I discerned that maybe I should read it again.


When I stare at the stars, I feel a certain sort of transcendence.

I, a product of this small planet, should exist to contemplate billions upon billions of galaxies?

What experience in this world can prepare us for those sentiments?

Maybe we weren't made for another world, but maybe our world, as it is only one small world, cannot prepare us for the magnificence and beauty of all the others?

Do I believe that we were made for another world? Do I believe that other worlds were made for us? Or do I believe that we are part of something even larger than our ancestors could have conceived in their Earth-centric imaginations?

Perhaps there are desires within us that nothing in this world can satisfy, and we are made for another world. Or, perhaps there are desires within us that nothing in this world can satisfy, because our world is only an insignificant fraction of the entire cosmos?


But to get at the heart of the question: why are we desperate?

Are we desperate because our world is fallen?

Are we desperate because our world is what it is?

It has been said by Christians, if there is no God, then chaos and destruction will reign upon the world.

And when we examine the world, what do we find?

I'm sure you'll point out to me that the chaos and destruction in our world is there exactly because we are fallen!

It would be rude of me to forget this, so I'm not going to forget it: instead, I'm merely noting a curious coincidence - if humans are responsible for the brokenness and chaos of our world, then why has life on this planet raged and suffered and battered about for more than a billion years, while humans have only been inhabitants of this planet for a tiny fraction of that time?

The desperation which I speak of is the engine of life on this planet. Perhaps no desire can satisfy it because it is the reason for our desire in the first place?

Abolish existence, and you've abolished desperation. But how else should anyone untangle the two?

Where is the evidence that we were made for another world? Perhaps it is true, but only as an addition to the evidence that we were also made for this one.

ananias said...

Our spirit soars on wings of hope,
above terrains of mortal clamor,
in search of spots with gentle slope
where our passions flit and stammer.

Guided by dreams of peace and love
against the gusts of circumstance--
our visions poor so far above
these lands of happenstance.

The cost of each ascent is high,
from those places we have landed.
And with each leap we give a sigh--
as a part of us lies stranded.

In just this way we spread our whims
across the life that we inhabit
as melodies of a single hymn
that our soul has made it's habit.

Some struggle hard to find their place,
other's look for god's direction,
but no matter how we dissect space
there's no changing our trajection.

For the places that we choose to land
are determined not by vision,
for what we see is not first hand
but is colored by volition.

So perhaps the best that we can do,
in the search for real belonging,
is just to look at ourselves true,
and let go of what we're longing.

Alex said...

Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your thoughts. I hope you don't mind my lengthy replies - I tend to ramble until I hit something. (So I suppose it would be better if I wrote something first somewhere, then revised it, but if I did that, what would be the point of having a blog? Who else will read my vague thoughts?)

I also enjoyed your poem. Here is one that I composed a long time ago that you may like:


Blow the ember, build the fire, --
Feeling, heat and warmth inspire –
Catch the spark if it be split -
Fuel the fire if it be lit -
Flames of orange-blue; yellow and red
Leaping tongues of fire spit when fed
With the essence of our lives:
By the air we breathe, the fire revives.
The smoldering coals, though tossed aside,
Still burn as brightly deep inside -
Though untended, left to die,
The glowing embers multiply
Beneath and yet beyond the smoke -
In our devotion, tenderly we stoke
The fading remnants of the blaze
To watch the burning embers raise
From ash to ash, from dust to dust,
As all it touches will combust,
A fire renews and then destroys its vigor
To please its maker, the gazing gravedigger