Henry David Thoreau in Walden wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” His idea, as I understand it, was that most of us, most of the time, are not exactly doing what we would like to be doing. Since what we’d like to be doing is some variation of lying on a beach somewhere. That, and fulfilling all our dreams for what we think our lives should be—perhaps winning the Nobel prize for literature and living in a house on that beach where we’d like to be lying. But since we need to eat, and pay the mortgage and things of that nature, we go about our lives doing the ordinary things that account for most of the time that is spent. And afterwards, because we’re worn out, rather than write a screenplay, or build a new room addition, we console ourselves with six hours spent in front of our television screens and then we sleep and start all over again. And our grand plans for the weekend: doing repairs around the house, or building a new kitchen cabinet, or whatever tends to get filled instead with more watching of television.
Of course, Thoreau and some pundits fail to reckon with just how tired we are from our days of work: which involve, often enough, not just our 9 to 5, but include child care and the time we both need and want to spend with our families, the various errands that must be managed, the trips to doctors and dentists, the soccer matches and school plays, and the sudden crises of clogged drains or car repairs. That we cannot always fulfill our dreams and aspirations, that everything we hope to do tends to get pushed back just a little or takes just a little longer than we had expected, does not really mean that our lives are desperate.
Instead, it simply means that we have lives. In fact, that’s what life is; even for those who achieve what the world might say is greatness: they still have to live in the same world as the rest of us. They still have to clean their kitchens and bathrooms, they still need to shower, they still need to work and they still make plans and spend time with family and friends and coworkers. There is remarkably little beach-lounging in any life, no matter how marvelous it appears to outsiders.
My children—the two that now live away from home and both work and go to university—have discovered that adulthood is both wonderful and something that they wish they could escape. Both of my older daughters occasionally wonder, “can I wake up and be in kindergarten now?” They look at their paychecks and the big difference between the number on the check they put in the bank verses the number that appears on the paystub before various deductions are taken away and they are not happy about it. It has affected who they are likely to vote for in the future.
When we think of the future, however old we are, and when we dream about what we’re going to do—taking out the trash, or cleaning a toilet rarely enters into our picture of it. And yet, that is the bulk of all our days: the mundane, the quiet desperation of brushing our teeth and getting dressed.
A mistake that many writers make in creating their early works of fiction is to put too much of the mundane into it. Generally speaking, audiences do not enjoy art films; we don’t want Waiting for Godot or My Dinner with Andre. There’s a reason why movies like Star Wars or Star Trek are so popular: it’s the dreams of what our lives could be—minus all the quiet desperation. We don’t have to see them sitting at the controls of their starships for the days and weeks of travel from one port to another. We don’t have to endure their eight hours of slumber, or their hours of meal preparation and eating, or whatever counts for paperwork in the world of the New Republic or the Federation.
Thoreau, and many of us if we are honest, would like the world of our dreams, but without the ordinary, boring bits. But what we fail to recognize, is that even the world of our dreams has no shortage of the mundane. I was privileged to volunteer with the X-Prize Foundation during the winning launches in 2004 of SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded spaceship. Most of my time on the front line of what was a very exciting and historic event was spent on my feet, helping people get to where they needed to be, explaining the same things over and over again to people that weren’t always listening all that carefully, or just waiting to be told what I needed to do next. I still had to go home and feed the cat and do the dishes. The time from launch to landing was just a few minutes out of twenty-four hours of the otherwise ordinary and mundane that fills any other day of quiet desperation.