Lives of Quiet Desperation

Henry David Thoreau famously said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. I never really understood that line when I first read it many years ago, and as I was growing into maturity, it always seemed to me a bleak assessment of the human condition. ”Quiet desperation” seemed to negate the very possibility of living a meaningful if not joyous life. In my youth, hearing those words made me feel distant at best from what Thoreau was trying to say.

There’s nothing like a few decades to broaden one’s perspective.

It’s a little like the old adage that you’ve got to pay your dues if you’re going to sing the blues. I’ve come to believe that, in order to really begin to “get it” about life and living, you have to have been around the proverbial block a few times- know a little pain, suffer a little frustration, have things not always go your way.

We’re about to read the book of Kohelet this coming Shabbat- Ecclesiastes- whose authorship is attributed by tradition to King Solomon in his old age.

Whether or not he actually wrote it is up for debate, but one thing is for sure. Whoever wrote that book had been around the proverbial block more than a little. Some see the book as cynical; I don’t. I just think the author had lived long enough to be disappointed about more than a few things, and had come to the realization that, when all is said and done, there is little that is new, what goes around comes around, and life isn’t always easy. Sounds pretty smart to me.

Not that long ago I published in this space a sermon that I had written that touched on the growing culture of incivility here in America and in Israel.

It elicited a fairly strong response in my congregation, most of it positive and receptive to the implications of the message. But the strongest responses I received over the holidays were to sermons that I delivered that touched on the difficulties that so many among us have as part of their every day realities.

For some, those difficulties are grounded in the harsh economic conditions of the past year. Few have been untouched, and most of us have been challenged in one way or another. But I was moved by the stories that were shared with me of the “quiet desperation” that is a part of so many lives, having little to do with money or shrunken stock portfolios.

Health concerns that make every day a challenge; family discord that threatens relationships across generations and wreaks havoc for no great reason; infertility, alienation, trouble finding one’s place in life in general and in a community more specifically… when I spoke to the need to broaden our involvement with acts of hessed- lovingkindness- as the best and most important response to this scandal-ridden year just ended so bereft of values in so many ways, people seemed to come out of the woodwork with stories of how someone reaching out to them would improve the quality of their lives. Simple acts of lovingkindness are, as often as not, as powerful as massive acts of charity. A large check to a worthy charity is a great thing. So is a hand extended to someone who craves connection and empathy…

I hope that we are able to translate the good intentions of this holiday season into good and tangible actions throughout the year. Maybe- just maybe- we can transform someone’s quiet desperation into gratifying peace of mind.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.