You Still Have Time
There remain few expressions better able to capture the futility of a task than one which compares our efforts to ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.’ The hull has been breached, the ship is sinking; to concern ourselves, at such a moment, with the position of the loungers would be the ultimate folly, the deepest possible failure to recognise the true hopelessness of the situation.
The point seems grimly apt because we are, many of us, a little like the passengers on a stricken liner. Our larger hopes in life have been fatally holed: we see now that our career won’t ever particularly flourish; our relationships will always be compromised; we’ve passed our peak in terms of looks; our bodies are going to fall prey to ever more humiliating illnesses; society isn’t going to cure itself; significant political progress looks deeply improbable. Our ship is going down. It can feel as if trying to improve our condition, let alone find pleasure and distraction would be an insult to the facts. Our instinct is to be as funereal and gloomy as our ultimate end.
But there’s one crucial element that differentiates our predicament from that of the passengers who lost their lives on the RMS Titanic in the early hours of the 15th of April 1912: time. They had little more than two hours between the moment when they felt the ominous shudder of the impact and the moment when the once-majestic vessel broke apart and sank into the north Atlantic. We’re going down too, but far, far more slowly. It’s as if the captain had let it be known that the hull had been breached, that there were no lifeboats and that there was zero chance of ever reaching port but had added that it would for that matter probably be many decades before we would actually slip beneath the waves.
So, though we can’t be saved, though the end will be grim, we still have options as to how to use our remaining time. We are involved in a catastrophe, but there are better and worse ways of filling the days. In the circumstances, expending thought and effort on ‘rearranging the deckchairs’ is no longer ridiculous at all, it’s an eminently logical step; there could be no higher calling.
When our large hopes for ourselves become impossible, we have to grow inventive around lesser, but still real, options for the time that remains. Keeping cheerful and engaged, in spite of everything, becomes a major task. If we were on a very gradually sinking luxury liner in the early 20th century, we might every evening strive to put on a dinner jacket and go and dance the Foxtrot to the music of the string quintet, sing a cheerful song or settle into the Second-class Library on C-Deck — as, all the while, bits of seaweed and debris lapped at our ankles. Or we might look out for the best spot for our collapsible recliner so that we could watch the sea-birds wheeling in the sky or gain some privacy for a long, soul-exploring conversation with a new friend – to the sound of crockery smashing somewhere in a galley down below. We might try our first game of quoits on the slightly tilting deck or drop in — contrary to our habits up to this time — on a wild party in Steerage. Of course our lives would – from a larger perspective – remain a thorough disaster but we might find we were starting to enjoy ourselves.
Such inventiveness is precisely what we need to learn to develop to cope with our state. How can we invest the coming period with meaning even though everything is, overall, entirely dark? It’s a question our culture hasn’t prepared us for. We’ve been taught to focus on our big hopes, on how we can aim for everything going right. We crave a loving marriage, deeply satisfying and richly rewarding work, a stellar reputation, an ideally fit body and positive social change. We’ve not been prepared – as yet – to ask ourselves, what remains when many of these are no longer available, when love will always be tricky, politics compromised or the crowd hostile. What are our viable versions of seeking the best spot for a deckchair on a listing liner?
If marriage is far less blissful than we’d imagined, perhaps we can turn to friendship; if society won’t accord us the dignity we deserve, perhaps we can find a group of fellow outcasts; if our careers have irretrievably faltered, perhaps we can turn to new interests; if political progress turns out to be perennially blocked and the news is always sour, we might absorb ourselves in nature or history.
We are turning to what our society might dismiss as Plan-Bs; what you do when you can’t do the things you really want to do. But there’s a surprising catch – or, really, the opposite of a catch. It may turn out that the secondary, lesser, lighter, reasons for living are, in fact, more substantial than we’d imagined. And once we get to know them, we might come to think that they are what we should have been focused on all along – only it has taken a seeming disaster to get us to realise how central they should always have been.