In "Walden; or, Life in the Woods", Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
A few sentences later, he wrote, “A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”
If I had been more introspective during the earlier years of my life, I would have realized those words (written in 1854) were meant for me. Instead, I put my focus on my labors, as Thoreau witnessed his neighbors do. I spent my time watching others lead lives of quiet desperation and I ignored my own happiness. I let things slide by that you can never get back and I allowed other things to destroy parts of my soul. Just as you have done.
For over 25 years, I spent my days prying into the lives of others. For 16 of those years, I sat in the back of a surveillance van, hidden behind tinted windows. I watched the world, but wasn’t a part of it.
During my career as a private investigator, I followed people to determine if their insurance claims were legitimate - regular people like you and me going about their daily lives. I took video of Mr. and Ms. Average who were injured in a workplace accident, or pretending to be injured. I worked for the corporate world, but occasionally I would follow a spouse suspected of infidelity. What I learned wasn’t necessarily what the client was paying me for.
I was in their lives, I went wherever they went, but they didn’t know I was there. The “subject” of the investigation wasn’t the only person I was watching. The job gave me the opportunity to observe the people around them; their neighbors, the people in the stores they frequented, their co-workers.
I began to realize that most of us are afraid to step outside of the box we put ourselves in. That box could be a newly cloned suburban home. It could be a high-rise condominium in the downtown core, or a quaint farmhouse in bucolic New England. We step out of that box, we step into our car; we drive to an office in a bank tower, or a retail store. After work, we stop at other boxes and spend the money we just earned.
Like clockwork, kitchen lights would be turned on as people woke at daybreak. I couldn’t see what was going on inside, but I waited. People rushed out to their cars, alone or in pairs. They hurried their children into the back seat and buckled them in and dropped them off at daycare or school. Many did the same thing in reverse at the end of the day, or they made other stops on the way home. Sometimes there was a quick kiss hello or goodbye, but too many couples forgot this small declaration of love.
I rarely saw smiles, or physical affection, unless someone was trying to avoid the sturm und drang of a bad marriage by having an affair. There was plenty of passion during those stolen moments.
My own life reflected what I documented with my video camera. While I was sitting and watching what I perceived to be the sad and desolate lives of the general public, my spouse would call me and accuse me of having an affair.
“How do I know where you are? You could be anywhere. It’s not like you work in an office where I know where you are from nine to five.”
I thought he was just missing me, or worried. Later, I realized he was trying to gauge when I was going to be home. I could show up at home unexpectedly if I lost the person I was following or I determined that they weren’t going to be going out that day.
Tom wanted to know because he was cheating on me, with more than one woman. I knew his history with women and I suppose I didn’t want to see it. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I did my research and found emails to three different women he was seeing behind my back.
I made him leave that night, even though he only had a few months to live. It’s a long story, but he is still alive, eight years later. Still alive and still cheating on the women in his life.
Women Aren't Interchangeable
Thoreau never married. He wasn’t talking about marriage in those quotes, but he could have been. It’s probably more true that women lead lives of quiet desperation. We can be too quiet for our own good, although the kind of men who call their wives “bitches” or worse, when we speak our mind would tend to disagree.
Tom wasn’t my first live-in partner. I had a number of failed relationships. I married husband number one at 18. I was too young to know what I wanted. Husband number two fathered my two sons. He became a drug addict and I divorced him. I met a lovely man 13 years younger than me, and he became my common-law partner. He was the best of the bunch; a kind and loving man, but he wanted what I couldn’t give him – his own children and a young family. After him, came the cad I kicked to the curb. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know who Tom was. I’d dated him between husband number one and number two. I’m close friends with one of his former girlfriends, and I know a number of other women he has been involved with. We all recognized the signs of a sociopath – charming, manipulative and unable to love anyone, but ignored them because he was brilliant and funny.
While I was busy working overtime to support him and my two teenage sons, I really wasn’t paying attention to my own happiness. I was running on autopilot, like many of the people I observed. Tom was sitting at home writing his books and letting me take care of him while he gave his attention to other women.
I could have become very bitter, but I realize that it was partly my fault. I choose men who were emotionally unavailable. I have a lot of male friends who are wonderful and kind. I can talk to them about anything, but there was something inside of me that wouldn’t allow me to choose that kind of man as a partner. Call it whatever you want - low self esteem, depression or a host of other psychological terms. I went to therapy to learn how to value myself.
I should have also realized that I hated sitting in that van watching other people live their lives, instead of living my own. After I broke up with my ex, I had more time to think about what I wanted. My sons were now in their twenties and I gave them a gentle nudge out of the nest. They are what I am proudest of; they’ve become the kind of men any woman would want as a partner. I had put my own writing on hold while I took care of my family. I started writing again and had a book of short stories published.
I moved out of the city to a tiny cottage in a lovely lakeside town, quit the private investigation business and starting writing full time. I have lived alone for seven years and I am happier than I have ever been. I make a quarter of the money I used to make, I’ve had all kinds of serious health issues, but I make sure I rejoice in each day.
I took the advice of a good man. Unfortunately, he lived in the 1800s, so he won’t make good boyfriend material, but there are others like him. If I have a man in my life, that’s a bonus. I won’t make the same mistakes again because I have too much to lose. I stopped leading a life of quite desperation and starting living. What about you? Are you putting your joy on hold because you are afraid to step out and make some noise or take a risk?
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*Lead Image Courtesy of Lily Atherton