Quotables, Real Seeing, Scripture thoughts

Slavery and Quiet Desperation

Henry David Thoreau has said, “most men live lives in quiet desperation.” I believe there is always a drama going on behind every face you see, and drama is not drama without conflict. Many times the beauty in ones life is overshadowed by circumstances that seem insurmountable. Desperation then quietly sets in because there are too many bad guys, and no escape for the hero. Life could be a beautiful tropical island, but feels like a desert island. The waves, the blazing sun, the constant storms all amount to the silent miserable groans of one who feels beaten down and trapped…and lonely.

Slavery and quiet desperation (1)


The monotonous doldrums
and daily drudgery
Echo, echo;
Rubbing violently on the soul
like the sea on a soft sand:
Endless blows of a crest
Draw groans from miles of shore.

Sounds of the sand
like the softest wax being
Shaped, reshaped;
Pushed carelessly around
in a stew of singular sameness:
Every fold of the shore
Cries silent mercies from heaven.

The grass has withered,
the flowers faded –
Empty, empty;
Desiccated with scoffs by thousands
now lifeless like a tool:
Even the loveliest forms
Find impassable berms and bars.

What then? What sin
has hemmed them in
Stranded, stranded;
Shackled by the island, surrounded
and encircled by storms?
Eagerness o’er silent faces
Adorns misery of heart and mind.

How the Parts Come Together

In the early days of sailing, a doldrum was unfortunate as it caused a ship to be “becalmed”. A doldrum is like the opposite of tantrum, where the sea is so dull and stagnant it stalls out the ship, and they have to row. It has been used to describe conditions that are depressed, listless, and of low spirits. Therefore, the “monotonous doldrums” in the poem refer to activities that have become depressing and somewhat like a chore – much like rowing a becalmed ship. They become an inescapable “daily drudgery” with an endless echo into the future. You might have no idea when or if it will end. After a while, these activities seem to rub more and more violently on your soul, much like endless waves mercilessly whipping a helpless shore.

I wonder if slavery was like that.

In response, you sort of feel like giving up. You go through the motions, but what’s really happening is that you are like sand being pushed around – shaped and reshaped by the beating you are going through. Loneliness¬†and apathy lead to deeper depression. Is everyone against you? Every time your heart folds under the pressure, being forced to be or do something else for everyone else, you pray for mercy as you watch the sea draw back to beat you again.

I wonder if slavery was like that.

Life appears empty of life. The things that once made it beautiful have died away, and your island is empty. A dry and exhausted face matches your internal condition. You wonder how such internal desiccation can occur, and realize the words and approval of others have been stronger than you thought. You did care what they said. After a while, every word to you sounded like an arrogant scoff. Beaten down by both work and words, you feel like a lifeless tool to be used by people. It doesn’t matter how skillful or beautiful – your hands grip the impassable cage bars as you try and imagine the green grass on some other side of the sea.

I wonder if slavery was like that.

The last stanza summarizes the whole and asks why. What causes slavery? There are many forms of slavery – physical, emotional, and spiritual. Maybe slavery is a combination of these.

Unfinished Work

Is there such a thing as true freedom? I think I know the answer, and the answer, in a sense, makes the poem real, yet repulsive to me.

It is unfinished. There’s no hope at the end. All are eager to escape, but the eagerness becomes a kind of adornment or sad outer clothing on their already miserable hearts and minds.

I want to finish this poem because in Christ there is nothing but hope.

Regardless, I have felt this way. The mood of the poem expresses the depressing monotony I have felt in my life. I have felt shaped by my environment. I have felt empty when people have scoffed or like a tool when people only cared about my talent instead of me. I have wondered what I have done wrong and felt lonely. Stranded. Like I was encircled by storm with nothing to cover and protect my head. If that’s what a slave has felt like, then I have experienced a piece of it.

Romans 8 has been hugely influential for me in regards to slavery and hope.

Here’s one for you (vv. 14-15)

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father.'”

Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” is a kind of hopeless island life I do not want. I think most would agree.

Depression is a nasty enemy. Fear is a horrible master.

Dads, lead your families to know the hope that is in Christ. God saw the Israelites, who, after being freed, went back to grumbling and a national depression. He reminded them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” He gives the ten commandments at that point and finishes it off by saying, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut 5:6, 15)

The ten commandments are bookended by reminders of their slavery.

Paul reminds believers in Galatia: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1)

Dads, open your eyes to what is this yoke might be for you or someone in your family. Don’t be a silent, eager face that screams, “Let me out!!” Your family will read your misery.

Do you live in quiet desperation feeling like you are trapped on an island with only the waves and rain to pound you? From one islander to another: You don’t have to live there.

Remember who you are. Hope in the Lord. Remember that even though your life seems trapped, God has parted waters before, and knows how to rescue over 2 million people at once, much less one person like yourself.

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