Ancient Feelings Defeat Modern Desperation
Updated: Feb 14
Despite the unprecedented safety, affluence, and comfort of modern life, we sometimes feel a quiet desperation about life and ask ourselves, "Is this It?" To save ourselves from the "Is this it?" tedium of modern life, we must find ways each day to trigger the ancient feelings of Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship.
“Most men live a life of quiet desperation.”
- Henry David Thoreau
Life inside the Fishbowl
In May 2005, the acclaimed author, David Foster Wallace stood before graduates at Kenyon College and gave one of the most famous commencement speeches in American history. He began with this anecdote, setting the stage for his entire speech:
"There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming
the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young
fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the
hell is water?'"
For the remaining twenty minutes, Wallace defines “water” as the default baseline reality for most adults in contemporary America -- the tedium, the emptiness, and for some, the desperation that no amount of consumption or creature comfort can cure. Looking out towards the beaming graduates, aging parents, and jaded faculty crammed inside the auditorium, Wallace ends with this sobering reminder of life in 21st century America: “This is water.”
Three years later, Wallace killed himself.
Despite the unprecedented safety, affluence, and comfort of modern (first world) life, many of us are living a life of quiet desperation. We are the little fish, swimming inside a societal fishbowl, where work and consumption becomes the tit for tat cycle of our existence.
We’re born. We grow up. We have kids. We retire. We die.
The predictable “go to school -- go to work -- start a family” ethos eventually invites this desperate question: “Is this it?”
Inside the fishbowl, yes, I’m afraid that’s it.
Many aren’t even asking, “Is this it?” Instead, they just say, “I’m tired.” Already exhausted from the never-ending and always-demanding loop of kids, work, spouses, aging parents, etc., these adults bypass the existential angst in hopes of just getting through another day. Whether it’s “Is this it?” or “I’m tired,” modern man is drifting deeper and deeper into “water.”
To save ourselves from “water” and flourish as nature intended, excited about life, we must find ways each day to trigger the ancient feelings of Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship. We must move beyond the flat screen, traffic jam, sedentary lives and reconnect with our ancient soul.
At 22, I joined the Marine Corps. I wanted to live in the dirt, seek danger, and journey over the horizon with a warrior tribe of men. I craved an over-the-top romantic life, a Homeric epic outside the domestic (fishbowl) routines of modern life. All that I sought required the ancient virtues of Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship. The Marine Corps delivered.
When I lived like a grunt, I didn’t always enjoy it. Shivering in the mud beneath sleeting rain makes for a long cold night of suffering. Yet physical hardship generates ancient feelings of being human. The arduous hikes and shivering nights in the Marine Corps brought me into nature, into the moment, and into myself.
In the field, my senses came alive. My hearing sharpened at night, my vision detected anomalies, and my taste predicted the coming rain. I felt the Vigor of a 20 mile hike, the Wonder of winter trees at midnight, and the Fellowship of a Marine’s hand on my shoulder. Like my barbarian ancestors before me, I felt switched-on as a human being.
Twenty years later with the Marine Corps far in my rear view mirror, I can still feel what I felt then -- and what our barbarian ancestors felt so long ago. When we exercise, we get Vigor. When we explore, we sense Wonder. When we connect, we feel Fellowship.
We all have the power to escape the fishbowl and flourish. By doing things each day that ignite the ancient feelings of Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship, we can reconnect with the Barbarian living in each of us and stop asking ourselves, “Is this it?”