One night very early on in a life, a young boy lay back on the rocky New England soil, contemplating the heavens, "looking through the stars to see if I could see God behind them." This quest became one of the primary motivators of his life — one might say he never stopped looking into nature for the ultimate truth.
But what did Henry David Thoreau mean by his famous observation, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them"? In it, Thoreau recognized the deep spiritual truth expressed in Romans 8:26, that men have "groanings too deep for words." Most everyone battles with inexpressible, deep inner struggles nearly impossible to voice. The song within is low and inarticulate, expressing deeply felt yearnings. What is it they are desperate for? And why are they quiet about it — that is, if they are really and truly desperate?
desperate — arising from or marked by despair or loss of hope; dangerously reckless or violent as from urgency or despair
Desperation is a state of despair or utter hopelessness — the abandonment of all hope. The recklessness that grows out of despair is a powerful motivator, affecting many people's actions and life choices. The spirit of man yearns to know the purpose for his life.
Man is an enigma to himself, but there is the common thread connecting all of mankind: God created each one of us with an empty hollow, a desperate neediness for our Creator so that we would seek for Him. If we are sensitive, this reveals our extreme and very great need for God. Man is desperately needy for God — just as our bodies need food, how much does our spirit need God? Food is only temporary — but God is eternal.
Many people live lives wasted on the temporary things, such as food, fun, or frivolity. They spend their lives seeking for what will satisfy for the moment — "whatever fills the gullet." Others, more keenly aware of their inward groanings, look for deeper fulfillment which lies beyond the shallow façades presented on every side. The heartfelt song of man's inner longing has persisted through the centuries and has been alluded to in the ancient writings:
I am benumbed and badly crushed; I groan because of the agitation of my heart. (Psalm 38:8)
Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. (Psalm 88:14,15)
Here, the psalmists speaks not of their own isolated experiences, but one common to all men — experiencing the deep struggle of having to grope for God. The Creator hides Himself so that men will seek for Him (Isa 45:15). If that search is given up, how easy it is to fall into despair, and hopelessness sets in. "Why are you in despair, O my soul?" This refrain, often echoed in many men's hearts, is repeated three times in the Psalms:
"Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God." (Psalms 42:5-6,11; 43:5)
To despair is to become destitute of hope. The complete abandonment of hope leaves the soul apathetic and numb — reaching a state of utter hopelessness. Having reached rock bottom, you could care less — about everything. Perhaps you feel that your Creator doesn't give a damn about you. You may think He doesn't, but He really does. As a father to a son, His care and concern is not based on your own subjective feelings as the tides of life wash over your emotions.
So why are you in despair, O my soul? Perhaps the greatest cause of despair is having no purpose for one's life, no real or fixed purpose, no resoluteness. Content to wander or meander through life, the mass of men lead lives focused on countless insipid amusements — all the while telling themselves they're having fun. To this end, Thoreau elaborated on his earlier statement:
"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."
Thoreau wanted men to rethink their own lives, even as he spent his own life creatively rethinking his — always asking questions, always looking for greater intensity and meaning for life. In his statement, he crystallized the idea that each man must have the courage to live life in its fullest, and to stand against the mundane trends of his own time.
So what is your raison d'etre — your reason for being, the purpose that justifies your own existence? Why are you alive and breathing? If you're not living to your fullest potential, but just taking up air, what's the point? Are you alive on this green, grassy planet just to keep the lawn mowed? Or does God have more in mind for your life?
Is your desperate, hopeless condition confirmed? Are you resigned to your lot in life? Have you given up? Perhaps you've turned to booze and find your only consolation in a bottle. No one sees you shedding futile tears that fall in your darkened room, to no avail. Quiet desperation washes over you. Death and the fear of its effects drive men to desperate, hopeless actions, yet they remain held in its inescapable clutches. They go to the grave, still singing the same song that ran through the course of their lives. The song in men's hearts probably goes a little something like this:
My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. (Psalm 22:1)
These words were penned looking ahead to Messiah, yet do not refer merely to His cry during His physical suffering. Each man can also relate to the desperate groaning for deliverance from death. The most common earmark of death: the mundane facts of living a uninspired, pedestrian life. This is what it means to be a prisoner of death, living under its dark shadow:
For He looked down from His holy height; From heaven the LORD gazed upon the earth, to hear the groaning of the prisoner; To set free those who were doomed to death. (Psalm 102:19,20)
So what are you going to do now? What are you going to do with the rest of your life? If you give up your groaning — your earnest longing — what's left? If that's all there is to life, then let's keep dancing. Break out the booze and have a ball. If that's all there is, then eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow you will die and go hell (Isaiah 22:13).
I say that for the shock value, certainly. But it is for a good cause — perhaps it will rouse you from your passive slumber or slap you out of your stupor. You see, desperation also has a different meaning, one that requires action to be taken on your part:
desperate — desperately determined; showing extreme courage; especially of actions courageously undertaken in desperation as a last resort; showing extreme urgency or intensity especially because of great need or desire
If you're really and truly desperate, you should courageously undertake action as a last resort. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and desperate men will do just about anything. [In Latin: "extremis malis extrema remedia" — "extreme remedies for extreme ills."] How ill is the human soul, infected with the disease of hopelessness that drives them to make the choices they do? We want you to know there is hope. He hears the cry of your heart and longs to set you free from the curse of death and its effects on your everyday life.
If you really have exhausted all hope, maybe you shouldn't be quiet about it. Maybe you should do something drastic due to your great need or desire. Maybe you should run out to the woods or look up in the heavens tonight and cry out with all your guts to the One who made you and can save you from the miserable condition of your life. Scream, pray, cry out for Him to show you the purpose He made you for. If you do, you won't be disappointed. He will hear your desperate cry and answer you. He will bring you home, to the only place you will be satisfied.
"The only despair is man unexpressed." —Gerrit Kouwenaar