Why the immortal words of Henry David Thoreau are even more applicable now than 150 years ago when they were written.
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
I think it’s fairly safe to say that most men see that quote and either feel uplifted that they are singing their song right now, or feel utterly depressed at how accurately it describes their life. I can say that happily I feel the former. It made me wonder– after reading this quote on a Sunday morning– why I am one of the seemingly few lucky men in the world who can say that. What is so special about me that I have actually made the life I want rather than going with the pack? Why do I get the seemingly rare privilege of living my dreams?
Is it because I’m rich?
Is it because I was brought up in a free spirited household?
The only reason I can figure is that I was never told how to live my life. Unfortunately, I was told that certain jobs (such as teaching) weren’t for me, because they weren’t a “man’s job,” but really that’s about it. My parents never told me that I had to get a corporate job and work for the man. I was never told I had to work long hours and bring home the bacon, drink beer and watch sports on the weekend or any of the multitude of gender norms that have been thrust upon men.
I was lucky enough to escape any of that “be a man” kind of talk when I was younger, which is why hearing it at the now age of 34 makes it so much more jarring and ridiculous to me.
See, I’ve reached the age where it’s not my peers that question my life, but my elders who see me as not doing things the way they are supposed to be done in their eyes, because I’m not willing to compromise my own happiness for what is expected of me.
I was recently having a conversation about the difficulty of buying housing in Sydney (which has essentially turned into the island of Manhattan as far as real estate prices are concerned). I was told by someone old enough to be my mother that our generation was too materialistic, that we needed to “go without” more, that I shouldn’t buy wine or new shoes (two things I happen to enjoy). My contention was that I am financially responsible and a very conscious spender, so I’m not going to take all the enjoyment out of life to save a few more dollars and maybe take 2 years off a 30 year mortgage. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, what good does staying at home, never doing or experiencing anything do for me, just to save a few dollars?
“Well, if you get hit by a bus your wife and daughter will get plenty of money at least”.
And there it was, my life summed up in a single sentence: utility. My response came immediately – “well, that sounds like a remarkably shitty deal to me.”
She just laughed that off in that way of “well, who are you to challenge the system?”
Here is exactly why so many men feel that quote of Thoreau sums up their life. They work hard to buy a house, raise a family, retire and finally spend a few years actually enjoying life, and then die.
We are not only expected to be the breadwinner, but we are expected to give up any kind of happiness, fun or our own dreams so our kids can have everything that we didn’t. If things go bad and end in divorce, we can expect to have to leave that house and everything we have worked for, continue paying it off and see our kids once a fortnight while we struggle to make a new existence for ourselves.
I think that’s an extraordinarily bad message to be sending to my kids.
For my daughter, it sends the message that as soon as she has a child she should expect her husband to be of complete service to the family while suppressing any desires or hopes he might have.
If I have a son, it tells him that as soon as he has kids that that’s it, you don’t get a say in things because you’re at work all day. Your money is used as your wife sees fit for the family, you get a crappy father’s day gift (because let’s face it, dads generally lose out compared to mother’s day), so if you want to spend any time living, do it before you get married.
But how can he even do that? If you want to get married and have kids, you need to have a good, stable job so you can provide for that. That means you have to start early and devote your life to a career, so forget any kind of real living at all. Is it any wonder that younger guys have devoted themselves to video games, drinking and porn? Why should they aspire to what society has consigned them to when they will go to their grave with the song in their hearts never sung? Where is their prize at the end of all their work and sacrifice? Make fun of it all you want, but the reason that Tyler Durden’s words from Fight Club are immortal is because they described so many men’s lives.
But what then is the answer for the 40 year old who suddenly realises he wants to start living life on his terms when the above has been his status quo for the last 10-15 years? Women can just go all Eat, Pray, Love or even worse, The Wild Oats Project, and they are celebrated for chasing their desires and empowering others. Men do it and we are ridiculed for having a mid-life crisis. It’s society’s way of saying “get back in your man box and keep working, you don’t get to enjoy life just yet.” There is a way, however, to have what you want and avoid the ridicule (not that you should really worry about it anyway – who is anyone to question someone else enjoying life?).
If you’re unhappy, if you don’t like the way your life is going, you need to work out why. When you have a free hour, really examine where you are at and ask yourself why you aren’t happy.
Ask yourself, what would make you happy? Work out what you really want – if you hate your job and career, start looking at new options. You don’t have to quit tomorrow, but start working towards it so there is an end in sight. You’d be surprised at how uplifted you feel when you have a new purpose to work towards. If you’ve always wanted to go and take a piano/painting/martial arts class, go and do it. The big myth about living a great life when you’re fed up with the one you’re living is that you have to throw out everything you’ve done up until now and start anew. All you actually need to do is start making small changes.
One of those changes, in my opinion at least, is to actually start challenging the status quo. Too many men keep themselves trapped in this life of quiet desperation. The amount of times I’ve heard guys say “happy wife, happy life” or even worse “I have to ask the boss” depresses me.
For God’s sake men, STOP IT. You have a right to be happy. You have a right to live a remarkable life. You have a right to make decisions that your spouse or others might disagree with from time to time. You have a right to stand up and be counted, and if it ruffles some feathers, so be it. Most importantly, you matter. You matter just as much as your wife and children and unless you can internalise this, you are going to continue sacrificing your happiness for everyone else.
Do you know the one thing I can remember my dad doing that really influenced me in this regard? He played golf. Every Saturday without fail, he was on that golf course for 6 or so hours. He’d play a round, have lunch and enjoy a couple of drinks with his friends. He never gave this up despite more than a couple of attempts by my mum. This was his time – during the week he left for work before 7am and was usually home just after 7pm. He’d spend time with us for the night and do it all again the next day. That Saturday was sacred to him and in my eyes he deserved every minute of it. He could have taken the whole day to himself and it would have been justified. That subconsciously taught me that I had a right to my own time.
My wife has always respected that I had my own life and pursuits – whether it was competing in judo, powerlifting or now writing. If I want to have lunch or dinner with a mate, she has never begrudged me.
She understands that those activities and interests are what makes me who I am, and trying (or expecting) to take them away from me would make me dull, lifeless and not the man she fell in love with.
My children will hopefully learn from me, just like I learned from my dad, that you matter as well, and you deserve happiness and the time to do the things that you love.
I remember my recent job interview for the company I’m working at. I can’t recall the exact question, but I said that I didn’t want my tombstone to read something like “Peter Ross, family man, good at sales.” That if someone told me that was all that was in my future, it would depress me. One of the interviewers asked what I did want it to read, and I said that I wanted there to be so many things that you’d need to write a book to describe my life. When I’m in the ground I want my grandkids telling their kids about the incredibly rich life I lived, not that I was just a regular guy who worked at a company and died.
The question I want to ask you is, what do you want your tombstone to read? What do you want your legacy to be?
Most importantly though, if it isn’t your time now, when is it ever going to be?
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/GabPRR