On Quiet Desperation

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

hear me read?

At the peak of Texas summer, my brother sometimes challenged me to walk barefoot across hot asphalt in a who-can-go-slowest race. I needed to disconnect brain and legs.  My knees couldn’t bob.  No strain could show when, reaching the other curb, I had to say  (without saying), “No big deal.”

Perhaps you feel a metaphor coming on.

I’ve been thinking recently about “The right stuff,” not the web-defined, “Essential abilities or qualities like self-confidence, dependability, and knowledge necessary for success in a given field or situation,” but the sort suggested by Tom Wolfe’s book of that name.  Wolfe says the right stuff extends so far beyond what’s apt that “self-confidence, dependability, and knowledge” are givens, the bedrock of your being.  The right stuff is so placid and nonchalant, so James-Bondsian that it can be neither shaken nor stirred.

And, for me, it’s mostly an act.

Pretending tranquility can’t fool everyone.  The people closest to you know it’s make-believe.  Those who have seen your sudden temper, seen your peevishness and general dismay, they recognize you get bothered.  They begin looking for signs of earthquake.  And with the rare few for whom you’re transparent, being read is disarming and strangely comforting, as if everything you’ve lost suddenly rolls into view.

Most people, however, want to fall for your act.  Juggling is impressive only when it adds calm as it adds clubs.  I try to carry all my clubs serenely, but most of the time I’m settling for appearing to.  Knowing it’s not okay to just scream, I say “I could just scream” instead.  I figure keeping cool is good for those around me, and what’s the harm in acting the way you want to feel?  Frequently I’m just idealistic enough to believe thinking can make things so.

Still I feel split.  People who suffer panic attacks say their episodes well so suddenly, incongruously, and strangely that the attack seems to happen to someone else. I know that situation in reverse, wondering why I’m not more upset, how I could be racked and so pain-free. When people tell me appalling things, I gulp and say, “Oh.”

I wonder if I’d ask to shower and shave before my execution.

Medicine might tell me the right stuff is the wrong stuff.  No one can inhale a hurricane without internal damage, and a few heavy sighs won’t dissipate it.  But when you’re sitting on the edge of a precipice, you don’t dare let the hurricane out.

I’d like to ask if everyone feels as I do and am afraid to.

The other day a colleague praised my “poise,” and I answered, “I don’t feel poised.”  But I only said it. How can you know how far away that other curb is?


Filed under Doubt, Essays, Laments, life, Meditations, Sturm und Drang, Survival, Thoughts, Work

2 responses to “On Quiet Desperation

  1. Your words indicate that you know you’re masking something deep and troubling inside, but are you? What if you’re just a calm person? My dad is. He takes things in stride. He is steady. He’s also an optimist, and hardly ever ruffled by anything. Now he is 86 and I can see his physical ailments are troubling him more than anything else I’ve seen trouble him. But he will always be considered a naturally poised human being.

    The border between pretense and reality is fuzzy. Sometimes I believe my calm and sometimes not. Sometimes I’m calmer than I can believe. Sometimes it all seems an act and, inside, I’m anything but calm.

    Your dad sounds like the real thing. I envy optimists who naturally believe in positive outcomes–I try to convince myself. Thanks for visiting!

  2. Having listened to you read, I am disarmed by the contrast between your statement that for you don’t feel poised and your measured and tranquil voice. I hadn’t expected “Texas,” either in your post or in your inflections, so maybe it’s just a southwestern attitude that I, who’ve never been west of Buffalo, New York, hear.

    I need to assimilate this new aspect of you before I can comment on the content.

    Please don’t hold my voice (or Texas) against me! The students I teach tell me they hear my accent, but I know a Texas accent–mine doesn’t come close. However, maybe it is my voice people are reacting to when they say how calm I am. A tranquil and measured voice goes a long way I guess… except in radio.

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