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Book Review: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Please indulge me for a book review not at all about investing.

One of the reasons, I think, Thoreau’s immortal quip, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” is so famous is because it’s so true. For reasons that don’t matter, I recently found myself in a few moments of such anger that I began to spiral—wallowing in a fury that discombobulates, grows upon itself, and erodes the foundations of meaning in the things we devote ourselves to, throwing the whole world out of whack.

What to do? I certainly don’t know, but here are some thoughts.

I start, each time, with my second favorite* quote ever: the great and wise Joseph Campbell, speaking of the struggle of the hero and his/her journey, summed it up like this: “The basic story of the adventure of the hero is, ‘Ok, so this thing has happened to you. Now what are you going to do with it?’”

What will you turn your disappointment into? And why will you do it? This, ultimately, is the question put to us all via basically all heroic myths through time and culture. For more, watch the still spectacular documentary Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, filmed at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch just months before Campbell ’s death.

Next, look directly to the modern myths themselves. Everyone has their own story that packs the most pop for their own lives. For all mine, even as an adult, the story of the Batman has been the highest and greatest modern myth. In 2009, Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert collaborated on a series of comic books called Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? The idea was to write the “last” Batman story (as if there could be such a thing!). Though it is a comic, this is one of the most profound and deep works of fiction so far this century, without exception or qualification. Standing as an apparition over his own casket as those who knew him tell their stories about him, having just re-experienced the whole story of his life, Batman realizes this about his own life:

“…it doesn’t matter what the story is, some things never change. Because even when they aren’t talking about me, they are. The Batman doesn’t compromise. I keep this city safe, even if it’s just by one person. And I do not ever give in, or give up. Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. Every friend betrays me, sooner or later, and every enemy becomes a friend or lover. But that’s the one thing that doesn’t change: I don’t ever give up. I can’t give up.”

The meaning of a great myth is not to have us live up to such tremendous idealism, but to see that spirit as possible in us—to reach for it. If we devote just a bit of ourselves to this ethos: to our work, to our family and loved ones…it is impossible to go wrong. For Batman, and this is true in most great myths, the doing, the living, of the adventures is the meaning, not the goal or ending.

On that note, let us turn, briefly, to those great theorizers of the interior meaning of life: the Stoics, and specifically, Marcus Aurelius. In Meditations, and with great pith, Aurelius reveals:

Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.

Here is the rule to remember in the future, When anything tempts you to be bitter: not, “This is a misfortune” but “To bear this worthily is good fortune.”

Spin? Maybe. But in the modern world, at least partially, meaning is self-made, self-determined. Meaning is there for the making. The stoics were among the first to reveal this.

Then, there is the great inscriptor of the American soul, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each year, I endeavor to read all of his works (that’s right, all of them). But the heart of his work has always been the superlative essay, Self Reliance:

Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt action, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.

The force of character is cumulative.

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.  Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

This is a nice summation: that the “force of character” is principles based, not always accomplishment-based, and that those principles are the ones to bring peace and meaning in the end.

It’s not without a tad of whimsy that lastly we meet the indefatigable David Lee Roth, +25 years exiled from Van Halen, only to find himself not just back in the band, but back on top of the music world. And in their newest song, Blood and Fire, even the clown prince of rock knows:

Forgotten empires,

Lost victories long past,

Every time I bloom again

I thought it’d be the last.

And then something crazy happens…

And BOOM!

I’m doing the victory dance.

Would that we’d always be so wise to take such a long view, even in rock and roll.

*My favorite quote ever is also Joseph Campbell’s: “We must be willing to give up the life we’d planned, so as to live the life that is waiting for us.”

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