Quiet Desperation And Delusions Of Need

"The mass of men," wrote Henry Thoreau, "lead lives of quiet desperation." "By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool's life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before."

Many people think that SUVs, air conditioners, electric dryers, leafblowers, weed-eaters, and so on are necessities. But on what does this claim of necessity rest? On a rational calculation? Maybe. Sometimes. But people who insist that cold reason drives them to buy what they buy are seldom the most self-aware. Unexamined or poorly examined fears and desires are more likely suspects. Advertisers know this. They provoke us to buy SUVs, for example, not by presenting detailed balance sheets of advantages and disadvantages, but by arousing fears of snow and ice, road rage, or the urban jungle and by enflaming in timid souls desires for the appearance of power and adventure. That the typical SUV will never be taken on safari; that its four-wheel drive is useless in suburbia or on the interstate where it is nearly always driven; that it is a danger to other drivers who cannot see over or around it; that it is a gas hog and an exorbitant source of air pollution; and that if the point is to vacation on dirt roads in the Rockies, it is cheaper and saner to rent one for a few weeks—all these rational considerations are quickly swept aside by the arousal of fears of body-mangling collisions and the desire to be seen riding high and in style.

Such fears and desires create delusions of need. A delusion is a mistaken belief that is so strongly motivated—usually by some fear or desire—that it is highly resistant to change, even in the face of strong contrary evidence. This motivation is what distinguishes delusions from simple mistakes. Delusions are mistakes in which we are heavily invested, which have a high value in our psychic economy. Delusions of need are the particular kind of delusion that arises from a motivation to discount as unworkable all alternatives to a given course of action. The given course then appears as a need: The thinking might go something like this: "I need my SUV. I can't drive a smaller car; with the kids and all their stuff there wouldn't be enough space. How could I get up my steep driveway in the winter? And besides small cars are too dangerous." Many alternatives are here discounted: reducing the amount of stuff the kids carry, maybe even the amount of stuff they own; using a smaller car with a roof rack; sending the kids on a bus or finding them things to do within walking distance; parking at the bottom of the driveway in the winter, or simply staying at home if the weather gets that bad; accepting a slight increase in danger to one's family for the sake of a better world; using the money saved by owning a smaller car to arrange things so that the family can spend less time on the road, thus reducing the risk from auto accidents … and so on. A person in the grip of a delusion of need discounts such alternatives, not thoughtfully and rationally, but from fear or desire.

There are, of course, those who unabashedly concede that they do not need the harmful conveniences of modern life; they simply want them and prefer that their wants prevail—and to hell with the consequences. But most people recognize purposes higher than their own and care about them, or would like to, but feel, nevertheless, compelled to do harm.

Thoreau held that what we experience as compulsion is often delusion, that the "mass of men" suffer massively from delusions of need. The fundamental needs, he believed, are few:

By the words necessary of life, [he said] I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it. … The necessaries of life for man in this climate [Thoreau meant the climate of Massachusetts] may, accurately enough, be distributed under the several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel. Multiplication of "needs" beyond these basics results from the progressive discounting of possibilities. I need an air conditioner because I can't sleep without it (here the delusion discounts the possibility of breaking this addiction); I need a clothes dryer because I can't let my neighbors see my underwear hanging on a line (the delusion discounts possibility of discomforting the neighbors—or opening their minds). Such progressive diminishment of possibilities is precisely what locks us into what Thoreau so aptly called "quiet desperation."


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