Henry David Thoreau is attributed with writing, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Thoreau said more than this statement but what is often omitted is more important, “Unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called games and amusements.” The first part of Thoreau’s statement defines the pain – most men lead lives of quiet desperation. The second part defines the problem – the despair is hidden under games and amusements. Let us unpack more of the pain, and the problem and then offer a solution.
Most men, even very successful celebrities, live lives of quiet desperation. At the height of his career, world-famous musician Freddie Mercury said, “You can have everything in life and still be the loneliest man. And this is the most bitter kind of loneliness.” Quiet despair is often concealed under affluence, fame, and power. There are many tragic stories of sports stars and Hollywood celebrities burying their pain in drugs and alcohol or taking their own life as final relief. The pain is real and no amount of worldly pleasure, prestige or power will soothe the ache of a life lived in quiet desperation.
What is the problem beneath the pain? The pain point that leads to quiet desperation is a lack of meaningful intimacy in our most important relationships. It is not a lack of connection or lack of acquaintance. It is a lack of authentic connection, especially with those we love. Madonna once said, “There were whole chunks of my life where I was utterly lonely. I felt that I didn’t have a friend in the world.” In 2010, Anne Hathaway said something similar, “The thing that I’m most worried about is just being alone without anybody to care for.” Human beings are social creatures. In the absence of meaningful connection, we will not experience the abundant life God promised us. In the absence of meaningful connections, we will not be fully alive as human beings.
The solution to quiet desperation is not found in amusement, pleasure or a bigger bank account. Elevated social status will not ease the pain either, nor will a “better” job or increased productivity. All these previously listed goods are fine to appreciate and pursue, but we must understand that these goods will never fully satisfy our hearts. Human beings are created for relationship; we are not as mere consumers. Notice the nuance in Anne Hathaway’s statement above: “The thing that I’m most worried about is just being alone without anybody to care for.” Her biggest concern was to have no one to care for, not that nobody would care for her. This distinction is important. We are created to give, not to take. We are created to empty ourselves in service to others, not to be served by them. In order to find fulness of life, we have to know what will actually bring us the most fulfilment, satisfaction and meaning. Here it is: Man cannot find fulfimment in life, except through a sincere gift of self to others (Gaudium et Spes no. 24).
The primary environment for making a sincere gift of self is within your inner circle of relationships – spouse, children, family of origin, close friends and closest work associates. Social media offers a shallow counterfeit to the kind of deep, meaningful connection our hearts desire. Likes, views and ‘online friends’ can never satisfy the ache in the human heart for deep, lasting, intimate relationships. When the most important relationships get second class attention, the result is emotional and relational pain, or what Thoreau called quiet desperation.Social media connections and interactions will never satisfy the ache in the human heart for deep, intimate relationships.CLICK TO TWEETWhen our most important relationships get second class attention, the result is emotional and relational pain, or what Thoreau called quiet desperation.CLICK TO TWEET
We Must be Intentional
For the past several years, I have used a simple system to clarify the most important relationships then identify weekly goals for keeping those relationships front and center. When I have failed to stick to this simple system, it meant going days and weeks without attending to key relationships. If I were to allow this indifferent approach to go on too long, it would be disastrous.
Keep it Simple
- Clarify the most important relationships in your life. If you had one month to live, with whom would you want to spend that time? You should probably identify no more than 10 -12 relationships at most.
- Define the dimensions of the relationship in an ideal state. Write down your approach to that relationship and how you want to be present to the other person using aspirational language. Do not rush this part of the exercise if you have never done it before. It is best to think about this in a prayerful posture. It will probably take you several drafts to complete until you are satisfied. Let it sit for a few days before coming back to it. Let the time between drafts confirm what you have written or surface new ideas you want to express.
- On a weekly basis review and re-commit to your most important relationships. Re-read and be inspired by the words you have written that define and clarify these relationships.
- Set goals every week to take action in each relationship. Prioritize these actions and enter them into your calendar and task list. This practice will ensure you are continually prioritizing the right relationships and self-gifting in the right direction.
- It is abundantly important to keep this simple. Incremental deposits into the emotional bank account over a long period of time, enhances the bonding more than heroic efforts sporadically executed.
- Repeat every week for the rest of your life.
The table below is a sample of my own roles and goals. This is not a complete list of my most important relationships and some of the language is purposefully cryptic. However it does give you an idea of what the exercises above look like on paper. I am sharing only an abridged version with you because, when properly done, this exercise is deeply personal and I am not comfortable sharing everything online!
|ROLE||RELATIONSHIP/PRESENCE DEFINED||GOAL(S) THIS WEEK|
|Disciple||Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He is my Lord and Savior and my most intimate ally. He is tender and fierce. Jesus is an everlasting mine with many pockets containing treasures, I will dig deeply in Christ through daily meditation and prayer, frequent sacraments and intentional study. He must increase and I must decrease.||Get to Confession this weekPick up the journal again. Daily over lengthy entries.|
|Husband||I will strive to love Andrea as Christ loves the Church – deepening joy in the midst of self-gift. My marriage brings me life in a way that nothing else can, nothing else was meant to. Our spousal relationship is the primary witness of life we give to the world, I will keep it first, second and third place. I will pray with and for my wife every day. We fight together to keep perspective about the Epic journey we are living – extraordinary calling lived in a very ordinary life.||Book Trip to WhistlerSet couple dates for spring/summerOrder Mother of Big Family Book|
|Dad||I spend quality time with my children. I help them see their dignity, worth and potential for greatness. I aspire to be an emotionally intelligent dad, aware of the kids needs, in-tune with the arrows and wounds set to assault their hearts & aware of my presence/impact. I strive to paint an accurate image of God the Father by the brush of my example. I say sorry often when I fall short.||Driving training 2x this weekBook time to discuss CompassSupport transition into new jobAttend to the heart level roller coaster of elite sport|
|Leader||Leadership is a choice, not a position or title, make the decision to lead this week. Leadership means influence, nothing more or less, I will not lean a title title or position. I model the way, inspire shared vision, encourage the hearts of my people, challenge the process/status quo and empower/enable others to act. I honor the P/PC balance by investing in my own personal and professional development as a leader.||Incorporate career pathing discussions into meetings this week and pay attention to what is said/not said.Prepare inspiring message/presence for All Staff.|
Simplicity: I have chosen to keep it simple. Sometimes when I am motivated to change something in my life, I create complicated systems or overly audacious plans. It is far better to make simple plans and complete them, then to make ginormous plans and fail to complete them. Consistent, incremental deposits into the emotional bank account of prioritized relationships are key. It is more about regular commitment and execution of small actions, than it is heroic but sporadic efforts.Consistent deposits into the emotional bank account of prioritized relationships is key. It is more about regular commitment and execution of small actions, than it is heroic but sporadic efforts.CLICK TO TWEET
Living document: Completing this exercise is not a once-and-done kind of thing. It should be continually reviewed and improved. I created my first table like the one above over 20 years ago and not much has changed in terms of key relationships. The relationships I had back then are similar to today. I have added a few relationships and took a couple off the list. The clarifying statements for each relationship you see above has been edited many times. My relationships have evolved over the years, informing a new way to capture new writing in the table. Also, coming to learn more about myself and what it means to be a man, a husband and father, leader etc. has enabled me to tweak some pieces now and again. Finally, I am continually deepening my understanding of what it means to self-gift. Of course, the weekly goals change all the time. Sometimes, I establish a goal for the month (not the week). I set monthly goals when I am pressing into a particular need or opportunity. As well, certain seasons might be inviting me to self-gift in a more intense way.
What I am presenting here is not rocket science. It is a simple and effective way to define one’s most important relationships and establish a template to set concrete goals for tending to and prioritizing relationships every week. Over time, this simple method becomes a sure way to make deposits in the most important relationships one may have.
I am almost embarrassed by how simple this system is and am reluctant to share it online. Partly, I am thinking that surely everyone has developed their own system of keeping key relationships front and center in their life. But a little whisper inside my head, informed by some very deep discussions I have had with associates and friends over the years, suggests that may not be true. So, hesitant as I may be, I am sharing this with all of you.