“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” – Henry David Thoreau
I have been studying, analyzing, and contemplating this quote since I was 16-years-old. I even wrote two essays on it my junior year in high school, one for history class, the other for advanced English (I still have a copy, in my own handwriting from those days). I used to believe I understood this quote from both experience and study/analysis. In experience, most of my life has been variations of quiet desperation. As for analysis, it sits at the introduction to my doctoral dissertation on this model. Yet for all my attempts at both understanding and finding a way to overcome such desperation, I missed the scope of the issue. I always focused on how to overcome negativity, or scarcity. I never imagined that others would experience such desperation in a world of positivity.
Before this most recent year, I had never been surrounded by such extreme positivity. I was just debating with a good friend about “embracing the horror” (or in this case negativity), however we define it. What I mean by embracing it, is to acknowledge it, let it sit down, and teach you what it must. He vehemently disagreed, for what he believed was a good reason.
I left the discussion frustrated and angry. In the middle of my own emotionally painful day, I felt the same kind of emotional oppression I felt growing up, only from an opposite approach (or avenue). To me, it was like a version of emotional oppression opposite to what I grew up with, which was to completely pretend the bad things didn’t exist. His approach, although an acknowledgement that the difficulty exists, instead rushes to get away from it as quickly as possible for fear of being tainted by negative thoughts.
My friend wasn’t wrong, positivity can help… at the right time. My argument was that it was not the right moment. Not when I was still surrounded by the experience. When anyone is in the middle of a distressing event or fresh off of it, you might instead help them remember as much of it as they can. Help them see the worst parts of the reality confronting them. It’s always been my opinion to ‘hope for the best and prepare for the worst’. On that line of thinking, we aren’t prepared if we don’t know what we’re confronting in the first place. From a clinical psychology approach (particularly to trauma or stress), it is understood that if our mind doesn’t remember everything, our body will. When our body remembers and our mind doesn’t, we become dissociated. It causes this mental anguish that we can never quite put our fingers on. Or if we can, we’re drowning in it.
So where does the quiet desperation come from? Well, both ways of emotional oppression (ignoring or covering up) can create a sense of isolation. We are often left alone when in our own negative experiences. This happens either because we are not ready to share them, or if we are ready to share, we’re lucky to find someone who wants to listen. I’m sure there are more reasons I’m not thinking of, for now I’m thinking of the two extreme ends. A lot of people in the world believes it’s better to either ignore the bad things and they’ll go away or use a form of toxic positivity to erase it. Thus, nobody wants to talk about negative experiences forcing those who suffer them to suffer in silence.
Unfortunately, when we don’t talk about the things that distress us, we forget. When we forget, we go blind to all the colors of our own experience, stop recognizing the variations of our emotions, and cease feeling alive, or become numb. It often looks like depression. On the other hand, when we overindulge in our experiences, a similar but opposite effect happens, but not in a good way. Overindulgence looks like mania. Best, innocuous yet still horrific example I can give of mania is from the 1980’s Twilight Zone the Movie, the short about the little boy with insane mental powers the moment he brings the Looney Tunes Tasmanian devil creature into reality. That creature is the epitome of mania.
Like I always say, too much of anything is not a good thing, not enough is also not good. Scarcity and Abundance. Extremes of either side is not healthy for emotional regulation. One way we can ultimately overcome this is by learning to share our burdens with each other in ways the create the least amount of harm with the most amount of growth. When we share our burdens, in the appropriate context, and honor them without venerating or wallowing in them, that’s when we will know peace instead of lives of quiet desperation. When we can suffer together, or at the very least, empathize with each other, the burden for all is much lighter.