“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Henry David Thoreau
“Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Recently, a therapy client referenced Henry David Thoreau’s quote about men who live in “quiet isolation.” This individual felt a strong connection to the notion that most of us live within ourselves, hidden from those around us. When I went to research more about Thoreau’s work, I happened upon the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes line, “for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them.” The quotes from these two authors are often merged to read, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
The words of Thoreau and Holmes were penned in the mid-1800’s, but I suspect that they are more relevant today than ever before. What a sin it is to quietly despair, not sharing our thoughts, joys, worries and hopes with others. There are many reasons why so many of us live in hiding. One of the most obvious is the fact that, as a society, we have placed such an ever-increasing emphasis on independence that we have left little room for the importance of “community.” We communicate through text messages and emails with people across the globe while too often not even knowing our neighbors.
But there is an even more pervasive reason why we keep ourselves hidden from those around us. Too many of us are burdened by a sense of shame. As a therapist, I can attest to the power of shame, and there is no shortage for the causes of shame. We feel shame about our shape, size, professional status, athletic performance, and school achievement. Feelings are also a powerful source of shame. When we experience depression, self-doubt, anxiety and fear, we mistakenly believe that no one else would understand, and even worse, that we will be ridiculed after admitting to feeling frail. In short, we hide from others so they won’t see how “deformed” we feel we truly are.
Just this morning, a member of my men’s group summed it up like this: “I’ve been hiding out…being this way in life is not very fun.” Another group member, while sharing a recent breakthrough in communication with his wife, said, “telling others how you feel is the center of everything.” Having the freedom to share ourselves fully is, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, the act of singing our own deeply personal songs.
And so I ask you, what songs have you sung lately? Who knows how you feel? Who have you cried to, laughed with or held? “Dan” was right, life without connection to others isn’t very much fun at all. And if you are reading this and saying it’s too late for me, IT’S NEVER TOO LATE to connect to others. There are probably those around you already who would sit and listen. And if you don’t think you have anyone there for you, it’s okay to ask for help from a family member, a friend, someone at your house of worship, and yes, even a therapist. Life is too short to postpone the joy of connection!
Walter Sherburne, LICSW