Henry David Thoreau famously said;
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
and at the risk of accidentally and inadvertently “outing” myself as a middle-aged man, not merely a middle-aged man but also a Cis, White, Middle-Class, Man living in one of the richest nations in the World under personal conditions that while not unencumbered by challenges are really quite blessed, I have an increasing understanding of what Thoreau meant by his famous declaration.
For what it may be worth I do genuinely believe that the anachronism of the gendered language in what he is saying is really no longer relevant, in that I would contend that the “mass of people lead lives of quiet desperation”, even though we have not yet reached a society or World unfettered by gender inequality.
So what does it mean to live a life of quiet desperation? I claim to gain an increasing sense of understanding as I move through life and walk closer to my own end, but what form does that understanding take?
It has been my experience, undoubtedly a privileged one, that the story of my future was told to me by teachers and significant adults and to some extent my parents* was one of potential and possibility. I was raised and schooled to believe that I had things to achieve and something to offer society, and that to some extent my duty as a part of that society would be fulfilled through effort and struggle and striving to achieve something of value and give that back, be it wealth or discovery or service or creation or indeed any combination of these things. The British culture that I grew up with is quite clearly very tightly enmeshed with the Protestant Work Ethic; the idea that one has talents and traits and potentials and it is one’s duty to God to use those things to magnify their value and give that value to one’s family and community and country.
Clearly some people who are told that they have a great future ahead of them, that through hard work and study and so forth will make their mark, do achieve worthwhile returns on the combination of their innate qualities and the sweat of their brows. They do indeed go on to achieve such things, but the very nature of our World is such that we cannot all be visibly outstanding. We cannot all achieve greatness, there are going to remain a majority of nameless, faceless people whose lives’ works will of course contribute to society on the micro scale but will never live up to the expectations we are inculcated with in our youth.
So let us step away from my privileged upbringing and examine whether this propaganda is extant in the lives of those who would reasonably be described as lacking in privilege or unprivileged. The narrative of state sponsored education (at least in the UK) and the stated aspirations of our political leaders with regard to the next generation, across all political persuasions, is one of expectations of exactly the same stripe. We run our society, to some degree, offering our children the expectation that they will have lives of greater wealth, comfort and achievement than our own, and we do it from a motivation to offer them a better experience, all the while not noticing that there is a toxic and unrealistic undertone within this well meant encouragement.
I have a sense that you may be losing patience with me at this point, wondering if I have any self-awareness whatsoever, after all here I am complaining that my wallet is too small for my fifties and my diamond shoes are too tight, but I ask you to bear with me…
“I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with Glorious Purpose!”
I cannot comment with any authority whether or not the writers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe pulled this defining mote of dialogue from the canon of the comics, but I do think that they knew all too well that they were re-stating Thoreau to a new generation when they did it, but turning the reality of Thoreau’s point through thirty degrees and offering the audience a chance to understand that we are all at the mercy of the self-aggrandising narrative of our own futures that we inflict upon ourselves.
What is my point? I know I have asked you to bear with me…
I am not going to be the success I have striven to be, let alone the one I long to be but for which I have made a lifetime of excuses for not striving appropriately to be.
I have a good life, I have a worthwhile and personally fulfilling career that provides for my needs and the needs of my family. I have good friends in whose love and care I am confident and who I offer my love and care to in return. I have achieved some minor praise for my work and my creative pursuits from time to time, most specifically for my photography, but even for my writing and musical pursuits on odd occasion. What am I complaining about?
I am halfway through my life, quite possibly more than halfway as statistical life expectancies are in no way guarantees, and I have not made the appropriate moves, expended the right targeted efforts, nor given the appropriate sacrifices to give myself the best possible chance of achieving the actualisation of the potential I was instructed to believe in. I will be remembered by my children, by a handful of friends and family and in a hundred years I will be lost in the abyss of history, and I now realise that I must find a way to not feel like a failure.
Do not misunderstand me; I do not fear the anonymity of my future, I do not have an egotistical need to live on in print or common thought or to be loved and revered by strangers, and while I do not welcome death and I value and covet as much of life as I am able to have I do not fear death and am steadfast and happy in my belief that there is no life to come. That all being said, what is the problem?
Well, there is a part of my soul that longs to live up to the expectations I was taught to pile upon myself. To offer a specious and effectively trivial example, I was told by a teacher who I deeply respected and revered as an intellectual hero that if I did not achieve a First at university that I would have no reason to ever speak to them again, and that I would have utterly wasted my potential. It took me decades to make my peace with the fact that I barely achieved a degree at all, that I wasted my opportunity and my talents fighting against the real politik of undergraduate study and that I also gave more of my time to the futile attempt to save a woman that I loved than I could reasonably spare during the precious time I had to devote to scholarship. The outcome was a direct result of my choices, I have no one to blame other than myself. I still have an abiding love of literature and theatre and film and I am still well read and possessed of a refined understanding of Literature and culture within the parameters that I studied, but I did not become the academic that my mentor felt I must become.
I have a self-made twenty-plus year career in IT and software engineering. I am proficient in five programming languages and able to understand a few more and I have got to a point in my professional achievements and capabilities wherein I can learn new things quickly, things that other people find far, far more challenging. I am empirically good at my job, and I worked hard to be good at it, but I have been pursuing a careerist aspect to it that has always been just out of reach and that I am starting to think that I am never going to catch. I have not innovated myself out of obscurity, I have not been able to achieve the roles I want to achieve, despite deep investment in companies that have potentially offered me the opportunity to begin with but then decided that I am not the person that they wanted to take the lead, in the final analysis. Not everyone can be a CTO, even if they have the skills and experience on paper. Am I better off embracing the idea of having found my level?
I write, not as often as I wish, and I devise stories and concepts and I do believe that I have things to say, ideas to offer to the World** and yet I have not become the writer that my own desires and my own belief would have expected. I have heard and understood the dogma of Heinlein’s Laws and I absolutely acknowledge that to be a writer one must write, and allow nothing to prevent one from writing, and there are many others who have explained this reality in their own ways, differently to Heinlein, but I have another perspective to offer. I am tired. I have a demanding job, far more demanding than it looks or that many people realise, albeit the demands are intellectual and cerebral rather than physical. I give a lot of what I have left to trying to be a parent and dealing with the bumps in the road that amount to my challenges - everyone has challenges - and at any given moment my well is dry, either in terms of energy or creativity or both. I am not looking for sympathy here, I am just explaining that I don’t have anything left, and I am always writing, but rarely am I actually committing those outputs to paper or the computer, and things that are not solidified tend to sublimate away with the passage of time.
I take photographs, and I really do create images and I think about what I want to photograph and there is meaning to some of the things I create. Alas we live in a World where everyone is a photographer and the overall valuation of photography as a creative art form is greatly diminished. It is absolutely the case that if one is furnished with the opportunity to photograph important events and / or important people and one makes engaging images from those opportunities then there is scope to be elevated above the crowd, and I know people who have made careers in photography, but they bet on that move early and paid their dues and structured their lives around building the platform upon which they could then build their success and I bet on safer, more mainstream ideas and things and as such I now see a gulf between the life I can have maintaining my current career and suddenly pursuing a career in photography. I owe it to my children to stay the course at this point; I have responsibilities and again do not misunderstand I do not resent that fact, but I do acknowledge it.
I know that I have much to be thankful for.
I know that there are ways in which I can truly claim to have made a success of my life and that in real terms the greatest success I will ever have will be doing my part to ensure that my children grow up to be functioning, healthy, happy, decent adults and I am comfortable with devoting a great deal of effort, perhaps all of the remaining effort I have available to me into that endeavour.
But I am not going to achieve the goals I made for myself as a result of the narrative I was given, and there is a part of me that is unable to surrender that disappointment, rationalise that reality, accept my own mediocrity.
My own burden of glorious purpose is both a joke and a knife in my belly and while I can write this essay and admit to this insanity and understand that I have nothing to atone for, and everything to be proud and fulfilled about, and yet still I tell myself of my glorious purpose, and all the while, just like Loki’s, it is all a lie.
I cannot even offer you, dear reader any insight or great revelation - this essay is just going to fade out like a lazy audio mix when the band would just not stop playing and the engineer loses patience. I suppose I want to know if other people feel this way? I know people who have beaten this, who impress and confuse me in equal measure by being able to live harder, busier lives than I and still be pursuing their dreams and breaking through as they do it. I know that Alan Rickman started acting professionally at 42, and that the wonderful Kathryn Joosten was 55 before she started scoring even small guest supporting roles. I know that Howard Jacobsen was 45 before he published a novel and that he was into his fifties before his truly successful novels came out of him. I know that I may have time, and I am certain that I can never give up, but honestly I feel as though I ought to. There is a growing sense within me that I need to accept my identity and my fate and let go of the poison chalice that I have been clutching since I was a teenager, that I need to find contentment in my actual achievements instead of believing that I have failed.
I think that there may be merit in teaching my children that there is value and honour and power in a life well lived in dignity and kindness and I do not think I can teach them that lesson whilst I frantically pick at the scab of my own self-imposed failure, even if I try to hide it from view.
And yet I do not want to let go.
(* In heartfelt defence of my parents I am all to aware that while they wished great things for me they have always let me know that all I ever had to do was find happiness and they would in turn be happy for me.
** Yeah, yeah, I know, just what the World needs, another white dude with something to say. It’s a fair point, but I am happy to take a number and get in line behind under represented people as long as it’s ok to also assert that my sharing the identity of the privileged and the oppressor does not utterly negate my ability to give something of worth to the World.)