Last Updated on April 25, 2023 by Alex
You’ve heard the famous quote from Henry Thoreau most likely but in case you’ve forgotten or missed it, the great American transcendentalist and iconoclast wrote, in Walden Pond, here it is:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things..”
Deep down, Thoreau was saying, most people are miserable, even if on the surface it looks like they are having fun or are otherwise fine.
The desperation is quiet, unshared—at the same time highly personal to each individual but also common because this condition afflicts the “mass of men.” If most people feel this way, why don’t they share it? Why don’t they make it a loud desperation that everyone talks about?
Certainly because they are ashamed—but of what?
And also because to make your personal desperation public immediately puts an onus on you to change the conditions that are making you miserable. And if most people feel this way, they might also have to go after some of the social conditions that push the probabilities towards desperation for most people.
The Bravery of Minks and Muskrats
This is a curious comparison with quietly desperate humans. After all, mink eat muskrats but in Thoreau’s telling they are both brave.
How is that?
And how are they both not also desperate? After all, survival itself is on the line for them both. If the mink doesn’t eat he’s going to starve and if the muskrat doesn’t get away from the mink it’s lights out for him as well.
But I think that is Thoreau’s point exactly. Mink and muskrat both are engaged in a game where the stakes couldn’t be higher. They have to risk it all, every day. Each step requires cunning and care, and bravery, day in, day out.
Whereas the civilized human from the city lives in a netherworld of minimal risk and stultifying conformity not to nature’s laws but to social norms meant to promote order and predictability—and profits for the masters of the universe—without regards for the needs of the individual human soul.
I don’t think Thoreau wants us to be predator or prey. Instead, what he’s saying to me at least, is that to really live life properly the stakes have to be high.
Low First World Stakes
If you’re an internet dwelling human anywhere in the developed world or a middle income country or a wealthy part of a poorer country, chances are that you are faced with an enormous range of choices of how to live your life.
Like in Thoreau’s day, most people—the mass of men (and women)—will choose some version of the quietly desperate life. Not consciously but precisely because they are unconscious and make themselves more and more unconscious incrementally by the countless decisions that add up to fully fledged adult lives by the time they are in their late 20s or 30s.
What that looks like first of all is being good boys and girls and buying into the corporate propaganda and becoming consumers. Consumers aren’t just people who buy things but people whose wants are never satisfied and who can be manipulated by trends and advertising.
In other words, you have to become an idiot. Whether it’s a BMW or a bigger house or a designer purse, more jewelry, or a pair of Hoka running shoes (I’m flabbergasted that this company that makes specialty shoes for distance runners has somehow managed to market its expensive but ugly footwear as fashion items, but there you go), the fact is, the million and one items out there are mostly meant to appeal to the dumbest and most gullible part of you.
And in order to afford the endless stream of consumables that come through your life and soon enough turn into junk that fills up the landfills, junkyards and oceans of the world, you have to work.
Thoreau mentions work—he says,
“A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.”
The games and amusements—the video games, streaming movies, internet browsing, alcohol—that nowadays have substituted for the entertainments of the past come after work and serve as a way of numbing the pain of work, and that often enough bleed into addiction.
But why would work be painful? Why would people need stupid distractions after putting their work hours in?
The answer is obvious: for most people, work is meaningless, or close to it. Worse yet, work is where most people experience their most visceral sense of self-betrayal.
Life on the Edge of Disaster
Look yourself in the mirror and say these words: “I am so proud of myself for pursuing my dream relentlessly, day in, day out, month in, month out, year after year. I am so proud of my focus and dedication to being true to the calling that rings so clearly in my heart.”
If you can do that and know deep in your bones how true your words are, then you’re golden. You are living out your destiny, and you know—regardless of your degree of success or failure—that you are a savage warrior in this game of life.
If that’s you, throw me a greeting in the comments. You’re a person I want to know or even just brush by to catch a touch of your karma.
Chances are that’s not you and that is the problem.
It’s what Thoreau really meant when he intimated that work for most people is a kind of drudgery. Not because it is objectively so but because so very few people have the courage to go after their dreams.
Because dreams are big. And because the moment we start to go after them a wall of bricks comes down on our heads.
Self-doubt, even self-hatred. Fear—of failure, of success, of embarrassment, of being seen and known and vulnerable.
Instead of going after what our heart tells us, we rationalize one step at a time so that by the time an aspiring poet becomes a very well paid accountant with a wife and kids and a lovely house and a Tesla he’s got this great story about how hard he worked and how success follows on the heels of effort and how he’s created college savings accounts for the kids.
Yet inside this responsible adult man is the juvenile poet, crushed and bleeding and most likely to die.
Why? Because becoming a poet is kind of ridiculous and doesn’t pay. Sure, it may be one of the oldest and most noble of human professions, with roots in the Western world dating back to Homer, but…. Insert your own rationalization here.
Why the Heart Matters Most
I don’t really mean your heart. I mean your soul. Your most essential self. The true you.
Everyone on this planet has a special calling. Yes, some people need to figure it out because it whispers rather than shouts but the calling is there.
It’s only people who live in situations where there is enough comfort and money, who do not have to fight for survival, who have the privilege of being able to listen to that voice and follow its commands.
The fear and cowardice that prevents people from following their calling as though their lives depended on it—and they do—are powerful forces. They can destroy you.
That is exactly what they aim to do.
What’s more, you can live in denial for a long, long time and the more you reap the rewards of the false life you are living the more unconscious you can go and the more you will strain to believe your own rationalizations and false narrative.
Yet you will fail. Sooner or later you will fail and the veil will be lifted and you will have to face the coward who you have become, the betrayer of self.
Whether it comes on your deathbed or earlier in life, it won’t be a pretty moment.
Better to turn to the mirror now, tell yourself the truth. Start the process of transformation by going after that one thing you know you’ve been avoiding, but that you have to do to become the person you long to be. Because your soul and the value of your life depend on it.