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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

On Despair and the Imagination

It may sound strange to locate the problem here, but some of our most despairing moods are caused by failures of the imagination. We are not merely ‘sad’; we cannot picture any better life than the agonised one we currently have.

What we really mean by imagination is the power to summon up alternatives. When we are sad, we can’t imagine finding another job; we can’t imagine retraining or shifting profession. We can’t imagine not minding what the gossip says about us. We can’t imagine finding another partner and letting ourselves trust someone again. We can’t imagine getting by in a wheelchair. We can’t imagine living on a very modest budget or relocating to another country. We can’t imagine having to make a completely new set of friends.

It is therefore key to assert a theoretical truth from the outset: with sufficient imagination, almost any problem can be worked around. If one door has closed, the imagination should in time be able to find another. Every life can be rendered bearable, however unpromising the initial material. If two hundred doors have closed, there will be a two-hundred-and-first one to locate. If Plan A has fallen, we can land on a plan B or C or Z.

There are other cities we can go to, there are completely new sorts of work we could try. There are places we can travel where no one knows who we are. There are lovers who will have a very different approach to intimacy than those we have known to date. The oceans are so large and beautifully unconcerned with us. We are grown-ups, that is, people with choices. We are not the small children we once were who had to depend on their parents for everything and were imprisoned by narrow circumstances. We would be able to build ourselves a small hut on the edge of the desert. We could work as a postman or retrain as a psychotherapist, find employment as a bus conductor or as a carer in a hospice. We could help staff a suicide line (we have a lot of experience already) or volunteer in an emergency shelter (it’ll put a lot of things in perspective). We can change our names. If we’re feeling shy and defeated, we don’t have to go out and see anyone ever again. We can live by ourselves, mind our own business, read the classics and go to the movies all day. We can go mad for a while and then recover; a lot of people do. We could throw ourselves into learning a new language or take a university degree in Sanskrit by correspondence course. We can find the love we need; we only require two friends, or even just one, to get by. Many people might be cruel, but a few are infinitely compassionate and kind and we can go out and find them and not let them go. We could make a new circle of friends among recently released convicts (they tend to be very bright and very free of social snobbery). We could go to a monastery or a nunnery. We could become a gardener. We could go and look up a few old and trusted friends and suggest that we all live together in an unconventional small and supportive commune. We can rid ourselves of the toxic values we grew up with and become – in the best way – outcasts and eccentrics. 

We don’t have to stick by the script we thought we’d be following all our lives. We might have wanted to do so – but we are profoundly flexible creatures. When we arrived on the earth, our mental wiring was loose enough that we could have developed into excellent foragers in the Kalahari desert, Latin scholars in a university or accountants in the logistics industry. Our biology is elastic. We may have lost a little of that primordial flexibility and latitude, it might no longer be so easy to pick up new languages or physical moves, but we remain eminently equipped to acquire new tricks. Other people – noble and interesting other people – have been here before us. There have been exiled Russian princes who learnt how to become tennis teachers, émigré South Vietnamese army generals who started kindergartens; divorcees who remarried; shamed executives who opened corner shops.

In order to increase our chances of fulfilment, we need to feed and massage our imaginations; we need to provide them with countless examples of alternative narratives, so that they can grow more skilled at throwing out plan Bs when fate commands. Whatever way we happen to be living, we should constantly force ourselves to picture different, more arduous but still bearable ways to be. We should go through our lives like a pilot who is at all times wondering what alternative runway they might head to in order to crash-land the plane if a crisis demanded it. We could think about how we might survive without any friends, without a reputation, without health, without any love, without much money. As part of their creative writing classes, adolescents should be asked to produce narratives titled: If I lost everything and had to start up again, I might… They could be tasked with producing four page essays about how one might survive if one was abandoned in love at 41 with two small children in tow, or forced to retrain after a scandal at 52. They could be asked to make a list of the 20 things that currently make life meaningful; then have to cross them all off and find 10 more. Only a few of us will ever need to write short stories for a living, very many of us will be called upon by fate to rewrite the stories of our lives. That is the true destiny and function of the imagination.

When we are very sad, we should be provoked by the intellectual puzzle before us: How else might we get by, given how many possibilities have been closed to us? How could we fertilise the dung heap we are on? Our challenge is to learn to rebuild our futures intelligently and creatively on the ruins of our old lives.

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