Apr 12

How to Live a Life of Quiet Desperation


Most of us will get there soon enough just by doing what we are doing. Or perhaps you have been living it for some time now and wonder how it came to this. The lucky few who have escaped can read on with bemusement.

Thoreau put it so brilliantly:


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.


This passage is cute and clever when we are in our 20’s; we forget about it in our busy 30’s; we realize it is true in our 40’s. That’s when this shit gets real! The moment we have this insight is the start of our midlife crisis. We ask ourselves what happened.


How did it come to this?


We follow this path of quiet desperation because that is our default.


It is easy, and comfortable enough.


Our mind is like water, it flows down the path of least resistance. So do our thoughts. The brain doesn’t like to work so hard; after all, that takes energy and we evolved in a time of energy scarcity. Most animals use between 2-8% of their energy running their brain, humans use about 20%. That’s a huge difference. Better to conserve energy, use heuristics and go on autopilot.


But similar to water; our thoughts have no regard for the consequences of their existence. The flooding river does not care that a helpless village will be wiped out by its flow, it simply follows the path. Your thoughts do not care that they lead you to neurosis and unhappiness, only that you survive.  At the heart of truth our ego ultimately only fears one thing – nonexistence. It doesn’t care about happiness, whatever that is. Existence and survival is happiness as far as it’s concerned.


This is worth repeating: Your ego does not care about your ‘happiness’…only your survival.


Our lives are similar to the river in that most of us follow the path of least resistance. It takes a lot of extra energy and confidence to swim upstream. It’s easier just to grab a beer and float.




There is a loose script that society has laid out before you.


Most of us follow it.


  • Go to school.
  • Learn to conform.
  • Learn not to question.
  • Get a job.
  • Get married.
  • Have kids.
  • Consume as much as you can.
  • Have a midlife crisis as your true self tries to break free.
  • Suppress it.
  • Work until you are worn out.
  • Retire and quietly die as you hope your offspring don’t make the same poor decisions you did.


Sound familiar?


This is a typical middle class existence. It’s probably true for all classes although maybe a small sliver of the super wealthy can safely ignore the part about working and retiring. It’s dressed up nice and pretty by the media and popular culture, but at its core it can be pretty bleak and empty.


Now this is not to say no one can find fulfillment along this path. Many do and that’s fine, in fact I’m thrilled they do. Many people have lived great lives on this path. But I suspect if you are reading this far you may feel a little differently.


It is a lonely place at times.


Let’s spend the rest of our time here trying to figure out how to prove Thoreau wrong and get off this path!


Changing course


Forging our own path will not be easy. Think of life as a road through a jungle. Off to the side there will be uneven ground, thick vegetation and wild animals to contend with. There are many unknown dangers out there – so much extra work. Remember how our brain feels about extra work? Why do you think so many choose the predetermined path?


It’s the path of least resistance.


It’s comfortable.


Do not confuse comfort with happiness.


It is not comfort we should strive for.


Live a life filled with purpose and meaning. And just to be clear, your purpose and meaning need to come from within, not from a narrative written by someone else.


This is where most of us go wrong.


Here are some ideas and suggestions to ponder:



Know thyself:

This is an antidote to just about any problem. To make our own path we need to know where we want to go, and to know this we need to know ourselves. If finding your path is your purpose, then knowing yourself will at least point you in the right direction. Write down what you want out of life. What are your vision, purpose and mission? Develop a mission statement. I waited way too long in life to do this, and to be honest I’m still trying to figure it out.


Focus on what you can control:

In my experience people on ‘the path’ feel they have very little control. They focus on things they can’t control and tend to blame their circumstances on external factors (the government, the economy, other people’s actions, political leaders, etc.). People who are on their own path focus only on things that are in their control (their attitude, whom they associate with, what they read, what skills they develop, how they spend their money, etc.). This is about mindset and empowerment. If you believe your situation is due to government policy and the poor economy you are powerless to change it. It creates helplessness and inaction. If you believe your situation can be changed by learning skills and choosing how to spend your time and money you are empowered. This leads to action. Which person will create their path, and which will follow the script?


Realize you are already free:

Most people accept the notion that they are not free. They create an imaginary prison around themselves that only exists in their mind. The exact opposite is true however. We are completely free. There are consequences to our decisions, but we are free to make them. Fear and comfort keep us on the path. Realization of freedom allows us to choose our path.


Have gratitude:

Gratitude is a super power. Gratitude is the antidote for desperation and despair. And the great thing is it works even if you ignore all the other advice. A routine practice of gratitude may not get you off the path you are on, but it will make you happier on whatever path you choose. Keep a gratitude journal.


Live intentionally:

When we just sleepwalk through life and follow the script we are handed, we are doing what someone else or society wants. If you do not live intentionally you trust someone else with the things that will have the greatest impact on your life.  Some people spend more time picking out their color of nail polish or which cell phone plan defines them as a person than thinking deeply about major life decisions.


Accept yourself:

You are good enough. Say these words over and over until you believe it. Only when we truly accept ourselves as we are, are we are able to change. I know this sounds like some bullshit metaphysical Buddhist bumper sticker but it’s true. Accept what is real in this moment, and then act to create change in the future.


Going back to the water analogy for a moment, here is the key difference. Water has no choice in the matter of where it flows; it is bound by physics and mathematical equations; it has no free will, no self-awareness. You do. You are free to bend the rules a little, or even a lot. The universe for whatever reason has granted us with limited power over our own destiny. The massive frontal lobes sitting on top of our reptilian brain give us freedom of choice that no other animal has the capacity for.


Appreciate how profound this freedom is and don’t squander it.


Live life as you were intended to live it, free from desperation.


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  1. Rent-boy’s words, not mine.

    “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f#%#@ng big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of f#$#&ng fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fu^#k you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing f^(&ing junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, f(#^ed up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”

    Trainspotting wastes no time and pulls no punches. Live like the masses… or inject. I intend to live a life less ordinary without the needle and the damage done. There is more than one way to be extraordinary. We see the same lies and foolishness, but I choose a different divergent path to escape.


    1. Haha, that’s a great quote…love it!

    • Doom on April 17, 2016 at 12:55 pm
    • Reply

    Loved that Rent Boy quote. I.Welsh is a genius.

    I’ll add one from William Faulkner.
    “You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day—all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.”


    1. Nice one. It is quite amazing how much misery we inflict upon ourselves for no apparent reason (well, there is a reason, just not a very good one).

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