How to Get Out of a Despairing Mood – Free Ebook

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 
them go.  

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.

Leave a Reply