It may sound strange to locate the problem here,
but in some of our most despairing moods, what
goes wrong is our power of imagination. We are
not merely ‘sad’; we cannot imagine 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 down,
we can’t imagine finding another job or
not minding what the gossip says about us.
We can’t imagine finding another partner
or letting ourselves trust someone again.
But on the other hand 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. 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 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. 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
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 American 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.
Whatever way we happen to be living, we should
constantly force ourselves to picture different,
more arduous but still bearable ways to be. 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 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.