In 1854, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Since a large mass of American men and women at that time were either enslaved, unable to vote or own property, and/or working all day just to meagerly feed and shabbily clothe themselves, quiet desperation was an almost gentle way to describe their lives.
Some 163 years later, conservative commentator Ann Coulter, in reference to a proposal made by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to expand child tax credits, said that single people such as herself “live empty lives of quiet desperation and will die alone.” She added that “now Rubio is demanding that we also fund happy families with children who fill their days with joy.”
As one of the 109 million Americans aged 18 or older who were counted as single by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2016, I was more than taken aback by Coulter’s assertion about quiet desperation, especially since I felt Thoreau employed the term in a more accurate fashion.
For one thing, whenever I’ve felt desperation or something akin to it (too many times during my life over jobs and boyfriends unworthy of such anguish), I’ve never been quiet about it.
Secondly, I’ve never had a problem with paying taxes to support things that benefit everyone regardless of marital status, things such as public education or health insurance for children who may or may not fill people’s lives with joy and who come from families happy, sad, functionally dysfunctional, or something else better left unspoken. Though it must be said that single people pay more taxes than married people, taxes that pay for things such as public education. I’m not complaining about that point, but am just pointing it out to be fair. Lots of single people may not have kids but many of us are paying to help kids grow up in a decent world so that they might build a better world.
Lastly, I don’t feel really desperate, quietly or not, about being single. And I suspect a good many of the other millions of single Americans aren’t feeling any sort of desperation either. As for possibly dying alone, it should be noted that the presence of spouses and children does not guarantee a caring presence at life’s end. Spouses and kids can die. Ask my mother about such.
The annoying thing about Coulter’s publicly voiced misery about her single status is that it once again stirs up all sorts of reasoned as well as stupid debates about the merits of marriage versus the perceived fiery hell of living la vida solo that have raged for decades. Thanks to a great many societal developments that have occurred since Helen Gurley Brown wrote “Sex and the Single Girl” in 1962, including a real explosion in the number of unmarried people, it’s much easier to be single and feel good and acceptable about being single than it was during the Kennedy administration. Still, there are too many people who still think a fulfilling, socially acceptable life can only be achieved by having a spouse. It’s very odd to think a single person like Coulter could want to be included among those people.
As someone who took a very long time to realize I probably wasn’t cut out for married life, almost certainly due to a combination of wanting the sort of adventurous, moving-about-the-country career path that doesn’t usually accommodate marriage as well as being way too picky about wanting a perfect partner when acceptable perfection doesn’t exist even in the most sugar-clogged of Hallmark movies (ah, which then makes it easy to employ sabotage and escape commitment), I felt a very small touch of sympathy for Coulter’s unhappiness. A very small touch.
Because if someone like Coulter feels desperate, despite immense fame and wealth that would not be greatly affected by child tax credits, one can’t help but ask why she feels that way. And for that matter, it also seems reasonable to ask why many married people feel they are living empty, desperate lives, despite presenting to the world as all too jolly and sneering of their unmarried fellow humans.
The thing is, emptiness and desperation are emotions that the majority of us who aren’t burdened by issues such as extreme poverty or severe illness have the power to change. If you are truly miserable about being single, and if you haven’t done the often difficult mental work necessary to discover why you aren’t finding a spouse or why no potential spouse is finding you, well, no amount of whining to your friends or trolling on dating sites is probably going to soothe that misery. Nor will taking your desperation out on a world with far greater problems to worry about than your unmarried misery.
In the end, whether one is single or married, life is all about the choices we have decided to make or have stood by and let life make for us. That sounds trite, but sometimes trite is right. And we should not let our chosen marital status evolve into desperation, quiet or not.
Desperation of any sound is for those who have real reason to suffer.
Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, formerly lived in St. Paul. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”
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