“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” Henry David Thoreau
The uncomfortable truth is that niceness, resignation, and quiet desperation often mask abuse and an existential (losing) struggle for survival. Whether it be in our physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual homes:
Surviving isn’t Living: When we live with despair, it usually takes up residence. If we wish to express our best, authentic selves, we must get at the root cause of chronic unhappiness. And particularly as it relates to abuse of power and unchallenged injustice, we will have to harness (generational) waves upon waves of desperation and displaced anger.
We will endeavor to be kind, but it won’t be nice. We promise.
Nice ≠ Kind
From innocent “How are ya’s?” to “Okay, you?’s” that follow, niceness has become so normalized that it is difficult to imagine – much less address – the sheer magnitude of suffering it masks. It is existentially important to recognize the false promise of niceness and the insidious idea that our flaws make us unworthy of acceptance, connection, and love. If this has been your experience, please know you’re not alone. Most everyone can relate to not knowing how to show authentic vulnerability, much less show weakness by seeking help.
When we experience meaningful exchange over productive superficiality, we are much more likely to open up about abuse, illness, divorce, medical bills, or the death of a loved one — all of which would understandably affect one’s ability to show up for “business as usual.” Yet, when we reflect on peppy, smiling, and lovely faces around us, it is understandable to fear the idea of putting our problems on display.
Whether we are schoolteachers, resident artists, or corporate executives, we often don’t feel safe being real. But why?
Purveyors of a Perpetual Smile
As if it isn’t enough to participate in the happiness parade at “the office,” we come home to “unwind,” dissociating as we scroll through a never-ending carousel of tans, vacations, and happy families. The artificial landscape of social media has arguably exacerbated the unhappiness epidemic in recent years, making us even more reluctant to talk about the fact that something has gone terribly wrong.
Conveniently—and you could even argue—intentionally, the carousel of working, scrolling, and consuming leaves us without free time or space to stop and think about the harm this mass pretending and theatrics perpetuates. How is it affecting our lives? Our families? Our partnerships? Our workplaces?
So, is deep-rooted unhappiness today’s silent killer? And if it is, how do we create alternative realities? To start, we must look at the vicious cycle of sadness and how it’s been successfully reproducing itself for centuries.
A Lack of Boundaries Invites Abuse of Power & Systemic Harm
One of the principal features of a troubled family, tribe, company, or society is that it conditions its members to hide pain and struggle to keep those around them comfortable. Collectively, we have associated any human emotion that doesn’t come with a smile as something to hide, a dirty secret you keep in the confines of private life.
And what if your home isn’t a safe place to process either? Where does the unhappiness and pain of suffering an injustice go, then?
Left unchecked in large numbers, repression makes us, as a people, fundamentally sad and easy to manipulate. We have become dangerously comfortable with contorting ourselves to what our families, employers, and communities expect from us, unwittingly, to the detriment of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual homes.
How Bypassing Emotions Can Reinforce Cycles of Abuse
Instead of making our lives easier, repressing or denying “negative” emotions and repressing healthy anger can ultimately lead us and those around us to misery. Instead of addressing the root of our unhappiness and making the necessary changes, we harm or abuse our family, colleagues, and friends. As a corollary, more than a few reputable studies link unhealthy emotional regulation with intimate partner violence (IPV).
But why are so many staying silent about this? Why aren’t there more unhappy people actively working to change this? With over 350,000 U.S. workers striking in 2023 alone, many legacy systems were not designed with long-term human well-being in mind. At the same time, we know this example represents only a tiny fraction of people who are desperately unhappy in their current situation.
When repressed emotions enable home and workplace-related stress, exploitation, and emotional manipulation, dreadful work environments can become the norm, unhappy marriages become memes, and the cycle of unhappiness continues.
Hurt people, hurting people. Rinse and repeat.
Abuse of Power Must be Called Out and Addressed
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” ~ late Rep. Congressman John Lewis
One of the main reasons systematic harm and abuse continue to infiltrate every avenue of our lives is that not enough people are calling it out. A culture of glorified individualism often bars us from recognizing our power to cooperate, organize, and build systems that naturally correct apparent injustices. Let us imagine what will happen when we finally address the sheer cost and magnitude of unchecked, chronic injustice and the quiet desperation surrounding it.
When Anger is Change Trying to Happen
Alchemizing healthy anger is necessary for our evolution and vital to our well-being.
If left unaddressed, all of this silent, unnamed abuse and trauma slowly boiling inside of us can manifest as explosive anger, thus starting a new cycle of harm and abuse.
Dr. Glenn Patrick Doyle posits that “the moment we go from “why didn’t you love/protect/listen or believe me?” to “you know what, I deserved better, f*ck you”…that moment is f*cking magic. You’d better believe anger has an ESSENTIAL role in recovery.”
What does it look like to direct that anger into something productive? What if we learn to use that fire to fuel radical honesty and change?
Clear is Kind: Channeling Anger vs. Becoming Unhappy
Historically, anger has been one of the most revolutionary emotions known to humans.
- If it weren’t for anger, Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t have been able to pass the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act, both of which finally established fundamental legal rights for African Americans in the United States.
- Without anger, the Women’s Suffrage movement wouldn’t have wielded the global power to gain voting rights in various countries throughout the 19th century.
- If it weren’t for the collective anger of The Stonewall protests, we wouldn’t have many of the gay rights and resources that exist today.
Oppressive and unjust circumstances give us a valid reason to feel healthy anger. But the difference between allowing anger to consume us and using it as an alchemizing force for curing chronic despair is evident in the abovementioned examples. All of these changemaker-makers learned one thing: how to channel their anger productively.
Imagine a world where all these leaders, groups, and individuals decided to stay silent, repressing their unhappiness and bottling their anger. Where would we be today? What if anyone facing an injustice learned to alchemize their rage? What would a reckoning of that magnitude look like?
Developing a Culture of Care that Naturally Addresses Abuse
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light upon them.” – Ida B. Wells
We propose that calling out abuse is not to be reserved for the few revolutionaries or radical groups—if we’re lucky, it’s both a shared privilege and responsibility that starts with normalizing the discomfort of naming harm and any who choose to perpetuate it. To cultivate this type of society, we must start telling our stories from a safe place. After all, one of the best ways to neutralize shame is to share sorrow and suffering with another, to be seen and accepted.
By speaking up and stating the harm done, we often begin to redress or correct it, reframing our relationship to the event or trauma and effectively improving our Shame Resilience, a term coined by researcher and psychology professor Brené Brown.
To co-create this reality, we must ask ourselves what it would take for people to feel safe sharing their stories. What would support others and help them feel emotionally regulated enough to take a stance?
Evidence-Based, Trauma-Informed, Playful Communication & Learning
“My theory is that we get depressed because we’re not getting what we want, and we’re not getting what we want because we have never been taught to get what we want. Instead, we’ve been taught to be good little boys and girls and good mothers and fathers. If we’re going to be one of those good things, better get used to being depressed. Depression is the reward we get for being “good.” But, if you want to feel better, I’d like you to clarify what you would like people to do to make life more wonderful for you.”
― Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
A fundamental starting point for addressing despair is learning to show up for ourselves and others. With learning practices across the globe becoming science and trauma-informed, we are beginning to get a taste of what a human-centered future of learning can look like.
Creating a culture of understanding creates resources to cope and heal from trauma while providing the support and tools to call out and stop abusive harm. Perhaps most helpful here is to refer again to Thoreau, who wrote in his ending to Walden, “There is more day to dawn. (The sun is but a morning star.) Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”
Socratic Questions // Recipes for Alchemy
Here, we’d like to share and refine transformational “awakening, changemaker-maker” questions:
- “What would I need to feel safe sharing my story?”
- “What is the cost of speaking up versus staying silent?”
- “What changes do I experience when I am clear, kind, vs. nice and compliant to fit in?”
- “How can I listen to my emotions as an alchemizing force for balance and change?
- “Can I share my recipe for alchemy with someone who could use it?”
If you would like assistance or feel called to share your story or a unique recipe for alchemy in response, include the hashtag #myrecipeforalchemy. We’d like to invite you to pick three of the above questions and respond to this article. Proposals for related essays and/or interviews are welcome.
P.S. As with most ideas, this post has many authors; it is also (perhaps perpetually) in Beta; please participate in shaping and improving its shared value; feel free to connect with romanus here or post your thoughts, improvements, concerns, and suggested edits to v 0.1 here.