“Nowadays men lead lives of noisy desperation.”–James Thurber
I like how Thurber substituted the word “noisy” for the word “quiet” when paraphrasing Henry David Thoreau. Thurber commented on life in the 20th century while Thoreau commented on life in the 19th century. In many instances, the words of both writers are still applicable to today.
When we take a step back from our immersion in today’s culture to observe it objectively, we see people, perhaps also ourselves, going about life in desperation. There are millions of us on the highways, streets, sidewalks, at work, on social media, at home, passing each other with scant recognition of what is really happening in life.
More than ever, we are alienated from each other and ourselves. This is evident in the degree of attention-getting behavior going on. People naturally have insecurities, but today’s deficit of social cohesion apparently amplifies neuroses. Our default way of experiencing the world is subjectivity tempered with the ability to empathize with other people and animals. In my opinion, there is less overall emphasis on empathy and more on self-centeredness. This seems to be the case from the youngest toddler to the POTUS. There are thousands of people who do not fit this mold. Knowing they exist is inspiring.
It has been said that desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Maybe it works both ways. Often times drastic change is the raw material of desperation. Our civilization continues in its rapid transformation into a form that feels frightening to us. People are grasping at straws as they try to cling to an idealized past. Never mind that the past wasn’t really as nice as we remember, at least the past is a known quantity. So as some people are eagerly embracing the present, many others want to drag us back to the imaginary past.
The trouble with forcing society into the past or the future is that people feel left out of the decision-making process. Change, especially drastic change that is non-inclusive is scary. When society moves backwards, the old, desperate mores come into play again. Revisiting the past is unhealthy because it looses the fuzzy, warm glow of nostalgia. Truthfully, the good ol’ days weren’t always good.
Regardless of how desperate I might someday become, I do not want to relive my youth and young adulthood. Although I have many wonderful memories of the past, there was the mundane, boring, sometimes negative stuff that also happened. Nostalgia is a trap, it tempts us to throw away the good along with the bad.
Each generation aches for a more beautiful world. There is a sense of confusion and ennui surrounding each contemporary era. The people who feel the deepest desperation, have more intense desires and fantasies of Utopian pasts or futures. Whether one sees blackness or looks through rose-colored glasses, the resulting tunnel vision will not solve our social dilemmas.
In our most truthful, frank moments we recognize those times of desperation in ourselves and in others. In worst cases, desperation leads to destructive behavior like terrorism. In best cases it leads to inspiration and inventiveness. In order to go beyond the extreme emotion of desperation, a calm, reflective break is necessary. This fosters the creative parts of the mind. We might say that calm reflection channels desperation. Life has its desperate moments, why not transform them into inspirational moments?