Aaron Miller: Desperate times call for reflection

It has been 168 years since Henry David Thoreau wrote that many “lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” It may be 2022, but so many people are still desperate. And no one is quiet about it.

I’m no expert on Thoreau, but I think ol’ Hank meant that people are dissatisfied. They toil away, unfulfilled. They find themselves trapped, struggling to move forward, sometimes losing hope. The need to pay their bills and keep up with the tasks of daily existence that sap their strength.

Much of the anger and frustration of the past several years is the result of desperation. We have seen people lash out — cursing, threatening, and accusing each other — in public. It’s behavior that would have been unthinkable just a few generations ago. And we’ve witnessed it here in our own community.

People wear obscene shirts, scream at workers in stores, and rejoice in crude bumper stickers and flags. We are ready to flip someone off in the blink of an eye. Aggression and rudeness are applauded. Instead of having a discourse about policies, we shout each other down.

We take our anger out on each other on the highways — with deadly consequences. Online arguments, usually over nothing, have ended friendships and estranged families. We can’t just ignore or like someone’s post and move on with our lives. We feel compelled to tell them they’re stupid and wrong.

Some of us don’t want to see anyone else get ahead. There is a fear that if others gain equality, somehow everyone else loses out. We sometimes think that there is no way that someone with a different opinion may be right. They must be wrong and we must correct them. Of course, anger is often the way we choose to try to convince them of our point.

It’s too easy to blame others for our own unhappiness. Sometimes, we get caught in a trap of comparing ourselves to others. We want to make sure that our pile of useless stuff is bigger than our neighbor’s pile of junk. Of course, we know that doesn’t lead to happiness.

When we are lost in the maze, it is hard to see the way out.

The Dalai Lama believes humans should be more compassionate and open. He believes that we are all born with innate kindness. Only through embracing compassion and understanding can we find our own contentment.

I think we are being too hard on ourselves. Canadian philosopher and duct tape guru Red Green believes that there should be a new definition of success. He thinks if you have a job, a roof over your head, and can pay most of your bills — you’re a success! Good work!

In other words, instead of being furious over what we don’t have, we need to be thankful for what we do have. That’s easier said than done. None of these antidotes are easy. I know that firsthand. It’s a daily battle. And a lot of days I lose.

To be sure, I’ve faced obstacles and problems in my own life that were not my fault. I didn’t plan them; I’m not responsible for them. But I am responsible for what comes next. I am the only one who can change my course.

But to make a big change, it often takes a leap of faith. To find a way out of desperation, it means taking a risk. That might mean turning a passion into a career, taking a college course, or moving far away to the mountains. I would rather try and fail to pursue a new path than never try at all.

Thoreau believed that self-reflection, embracing nature, and rejecting materialism would lead to greater happiness.

I don’t know what the solution is for sure. But I do know if we are to live with one another in peace, we need to be a little more quiet and a lot less desperate.