Toward the end of my junior year of high school, I read this line by Henry David Thoreau and it rocked my world: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It was a haunting thought that most people quietly suffer through their lives and never truly live or become the person they’re capable of becoming. What was even more haunting, though, was that a month before I read this line, I watched my grandpa die of cancer. And in the months and weeks leading up to his death, I heard his “quiet desperation” become loud.
One afternoon, just weeks before his death, he sat in his rocking chair by the living room window when he started to cry. My mom asked if he was OK and he said “no.” She asked if she should call for help and he said, “No, no — it’s not that.” He sat quietly for a few moments and then said, “I’ve lived 84 years and I don’t know what this life is about and there isn’t enough time to fix it.”
A few days after his death, I found in his home an old shoebox filled with faded black and white photographs. In one particular photograph he stood tall and proud on a pier. Behind him the ocean stretched to the horizon. Beside him fish hung by their gills on a board suspended between two wooden posts. Above him the sun beat down on his face, revealing a smile that said there was nowhere else he would rather be.
As I held the photograph in my hand, I began to wonder how my grandpa imagined his future as he stood on that pier. I wondered if it had ever crossed his mind that one day he’d stare out the living room window and cry because he had lived his life without ever pausing to consider “what this life was about.” I wondered if it had ever crossed his mind that he would someday become nothing more than an image in a fading photograph, tucked away in a shoebox.
But the more I looked at my grandpa in the photograph, the more I began to see myself. Did it ever cross my mind that I might live a life of quiet desperation? Did it ever cross my mind that I would someday become nothing more than an image in a fading photograph, tucked away in a shoebox?
* * *
I want you to imagine a jar with 30,000 pebbles in it. Why 30,000? Because the average person in the modern world lives about 30,000 days, but, of course, even this isn’t guaranteed. So imagine that each pebble is a day. This means that every morning when you wake up and hit “snooze,” you’re making an important decision about how you value your time: You’re mindlessly discarding a pebble. That’s right. There are no do-overs or put-backs. Every day is a pebble pulled out of the jar of your life, and you can mindlessly discard it or you can begin to more seriously consider: What can I do with this pebble, this day, that honors its true value? Because time is a non-renewable resource and each pebble, each day, slips through your hands, never to be retrieved again.
I know all of this might seem depressing because you’re probably in the habit — like most people are — of thinking your jar has an endless supply of pebbles. As a result, you casually wish your life away. You wish you were married, had a job, a promotion, a house, a child, a grandchild. You wish you were retired… BOOM. You’re dead. And before you’re dead, you might have a few sobering months, weeks or days when you have the startling recognition, like my grandpa did, that you wish you hadn’t wished your life away. Let me say that again in a different way: At some point, you’re going to wish you had the time you now so casually wish away.
I want you to think about the feeling you have right now as I talk about my grandpa and the jar with pebbles. I want you to not immediately fold that feeling up and put it away in a box deep inside that you’ll never open again — because that’s what leads to “a life of quiet desperation.” That’s what leads to living 84 years and not knowing what your life is about. So if you think it’s depressing to acknowledge your mortality, imagine what it’s like to actually confront it and not have enough time to “fix it.” That feeling of angst and dread that’s turning in your gut right now is the only thing you have to protect your uniqueness. Let me explain that last line.
Acknowledging that your time is limited puts you at the threshold of individuation, of becoming yourself. Threshold is a word that comes from the “threshing” of grain, where the edible part of the grain is freed from the husk. So there is this idea, in threshing, of a tearing away and falling off of what is not essential or life-giving. In this way, recognizing that your time is limited threshes away the illusory claim that “I don’t need to worry about this now,” and it uncovers the reality that each day you live is one less day you will be alive.
As long as you continue to ignore your mortality, you’ll continue to deny yourself the possibility of threshing away your ignorance and uncovering what you, and only you, can make of yourself and your life. You don’t have all the time in the world — which means you can’t pursue every possibility. You have to decide what life paths are truly worth your time since you will spend your most valuable resource, time, walking down those paths. Therefore, acknowledging and reflecting on your limited time reveals what possibilities are most authentically your own.
* * *
It’s been almost 20 years since I witnessed my grandfather’s death, since I read Thoreau’s line about quiet desperation, and since I found that old black and white photograph of my grandfather in a shoebox. I still think about my grandpa and his life. I still think about my life, too, and where it’s headed. Most of all, though, I still struggle with my own fragility and limitations. And sometimes, I’m even tempted to concede that maybe ignorance is bliss.
But I know better. The sun has just set. Another pebble is almost out of the jar. I’ve spent most of my Saturday writing to you. I could’ve spent it doing many other things that probably would’ve been more fun, more pleasurable, more forgetful of time’s passing. But I didn’t — because I want to be here, doing this, with you, struggling to better understand who I am and who I might become. Writing to you gives my life meaning by bringing me closer to the person I want to be, and I can’t imagine a better way to have honored this pebble.
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