FACING DOWN FUTILITYPosted: March 4, 2012
I know how this piece begins but it’s anyone’s guess how it will end. It begins with the realisation that nothing is worth doing and nothing matters. Nothing. Not eating or drinking or washing or shaving. Not hearing from or talking to anyone. Not reading or writing or going anywhere. Not looking to see if the post has come or turning on the computer to find out if there are any new emails. Not bothering about the weather forecast or thinking about a walk. One goes through the motions of everyday existence —taking a shower or getting dressed—only because it is easier and less uncomfortable to do so than to make the decision to abstain.
When I was a very young man I used to call it my “futility feeling”. It is not full-blown Weltschmerz or accidie, as I understand those afflictions, but comes precious close to them. So far as I am aware, Winston Churchill left no analysis of the recurrent malady which with typical flourish he called his ‘Black Dog’, but I have the impression that my own condition must be very like it. Which is comforting, in a way. If one of the greatest men who ever lived was powerless to avoid such wretchedness, what possible chance has a toad beneath the harrow such as I of being immune?
I am not talking about clinical depression, a frightening disorder that can lay waste entire lives and compared with which Churchill’s Black Dog was a trivial inconvenience. Nor about melancholia —literally ‘black bile’— which from Edgar Allen Poe to Sylvia Plath (and not forgetting Van Gogh’s ear) has plagued celebrities without number and from Shakespeare to Schopenhauer inspired whole libraries of literature. Clinical depression may respond to medication. ‘Futility’ precludes even so much as a visit to the G.P.
So far as I know, Churchill never publicly disclosed a therapy for his attacks of Black Dog, but I think I know what it must have been. “To have the management of the mind is a great art”, said Dr.Johnson. Churchill stopped trying to think and did physical things. With the assistance of a local bricklayer, he built a playhouse for his daughter, Mary, at Chartwell, and a garden wall for his wife, Clementine. He dug a ha-ha. He dammed a stream to create ornamental pools. Action is the cure. Almost any action so long as it is physical, time-consuming and fatiguing. Pulling all the books from your shelves and rearranging them. Emptying the kitchen cupboards, cleaning and restocking them. Clearing out the garage and taking all unwanted items to the tip.
Action being in this case wholly at odds with the condition to be remedied, a supreme effort of will may be required to start the process of rehabilitation. C’est le premier pas qui coute is the watchword. (To move a mountain, pick up the first stone). Fetch the stepladder to reach the highest bookshelf or kitchen cupboard. Place the dusters and other cleaning materials at hand. Take out the first book or moulding jar of time-expired strawberry jam. Then another, and another. Keep on keeping on until you are too tired to shift so much as a paperback, throw out third tin of solidified emulsion paint or bin the seventh rusting can of what might be anything from baked beans to bouillon but can’t be identified or dated because the paper wrapping has rotted away.
Then pause. All at once you find you fancy a glass of hearty red wine or cold beer, or a mug of tea. And you do care which. All of a sudden you want to know the figures for yesterday’s Footsie or learn how the Opposition performed at PMQT. Out of the blue you decide to read William Manchester’s The Caged Lion again and think it would be really good to have Michael and Amanda over for a drink.
I can’t be sure that my “futility” is the same genus of visitation as Churchill’s Black Dog, but the antidote is identical to that which he so succinctly and specifically spelt out for such times of lost heart.
KEEP BUGGERING ON.