Posted by: Dennie | July 22, 2013

Fear and Quiet Desperation

Henry David Thoreau is quoted as saying “Most people live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”   

The truth of this statement saddens me. I see it everywhere-the drudgery of day in, day out, work, eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep. People surviving life, but not living it.

Over the weekend, I watched “J.Edgar” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and the film brought Thoreau’s quote to mind. His public life was consumed and driven by the Agency and his work, but his personal life seemed riddled with fear. It appeared he was strongly influenced by his mother and her opinion of him and his own unspoken and concealed secrets seemed to be as potentially damaging as the confidential and undisclosed files he maintained on high profile government and public figures. His life was simultaneously fulfilling and void.

How is it that so many live lives of quiet desperation? I believe it stems from a fear that has been instilled in us as children,  resounds from messages we received growing up and continues to affect us as adults.  A classic example is that of J. Edgar Hoover when the political powerhouse summoned the courage to tell his mother he had no interest in women. Her response to him recounted a story conveying a clear and chilling message that to be gay was intolerable and unacceptable.

I listened to a woman share at a meeting last night.  Although her childhood was beyond horrific, she now, in her early forties, is building a life for herself. She emphatically stated that she has learned she does not have to be a product of her parents, her childhood or her past. That it is her responsibility to determine the life she was meant to live and to live it. She’s moving forward, one step, one day at a time, tentatively, and with caution, but she moves. She is listening for the notes of her song, and she inspires me.

What would I do if I had No Fear?  The question is one that echoes in my head on a daily basis and the answer I can best come up with has been quit my job and write full time. But for me at this point, there’s a difference between fear and reality.  Quitting my job now would be financial suicide and just plain stupid. But I can work toward that goal, and that’s just what I’m doing. Composing the notes of my song, moving forward, one day at a time, tentatively and with caution, but no longer looking back.


  1. great quote

    • Thanks, but I botched it….see above…..thanks for reading my stuff!

  2. Hi there, please don’t take this the wrong way, I used the same quote a few weeks ago and was corrected by a thoreau guru. here is what I learned: Here are the misquotes followed by the real quotes, as copied and pasted from the HDT mis-quote page at

    Misquotation: Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

    The first half of this quotation is a misquotation from Thoreau’s Walden:

    “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.”

    The second half of this quotation is mis-attributed to Thoreau and may be a misquotation or misremembering of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ (1809-1894) “The Voiceless”:

    Alas for those that never sing,
    But die with all their music in them.

    That is really nice, but we kind of like this one, submitted by DJ from NC:

    “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their grave, unable to find that damn screwdriver.”

    We think HDT would have approved. 😉


    Like you, I’m an HDT fan and writer, worked as journalist for few decades. yes, would love to quit and write my own stuff, but like you, need pay check and health plan 🙂

    looking forward to reading more on your blog. thanks Louisa

    • Thanks for for the comments and setting me straight. I appreciate it!

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