“When we lose that sense of the possible, we lose it fast.” Joan Didion, Blue Nights.
I understand what she’s saying. For me it’s like the tide coming in on a sandcastle: one minute it is standing firm and the next its foundations have been eaten away and down it goes in one a lurching collapse. For some reason, the unstoppable erosion around the base of a sandcastle seems more dramatic and ruinous than a trample from above. Being dismantled from the top down is more orderly, more predictable, with a faint whiff of the possibility of salvage. On the other hand, crumbling from the bottom signifies that all is lost. You know that stage in a game of Jenga when you play whilst holding your breath? You’re just seconds away from all of the pieces crashing to the floor and, for some reason, you think that not breathing will stabilise it, freeze the moment. My siblings and I have a favourite summer beach game (still played when we get together on summers at home) called ‘holding back the tide’. At low water we build a huge sandcastle high up the beach, but below the tide line, and as the water approaches we protect it with stones, driftwood and seaweed. As a last resort, when things begin to get dismal and dire, our bodies become the final ineffectual sea wall. It is one of those futile games with an inevitable ending: us – cold, wet, bedraggled, and ankle deep in waves, mourning a pancake of sand that has dissolved into a low mound like the Wicked Witch of the West. Why are we drawn to play these games? Games we are destined to lose, games that end in destruction? Maybe because they mirror life: the clinging on and trying desperately; our insistence in holding onto wisps of possibility, but knowing all along we’re pursuing the impossible in a delaying tactic for lamenting our loss.
Most of the possibilities we hang onto are much more realistic than the sandcastle game. We start high with credible ideas, self-belief and energy. We are told, “it’s possible.” We work on it, it becomes probable: it’s going to happen! When it doesn’t it’s like a black run of a downhill ski slope: steep, fast and dangerous. A sudden descent from a place of possibility into unlikelihood, unachievable, impossible, stop dreaming, give up. There’s an old expression to convey how the body absorbs shock: “The news took the legs out from under me.” We’re just like sandcastles: we fall from the bottom. When you lose that sense of the possible and hopes are dashed, it’s hard starting over, especially when you have to find lost legs.
In our family we’ve come to use the phrase, “It’s all ruined!” as a deliberately over-the-top reaction to something relatively minor befalling us. And there is some relief to be had in allowing yourself to fall into a puddle of ruination and lathering yourself up in calamity. Yet, even when it is something major that has befallen you, is it really ever all ruined? ALL of it? Isn’t there always a glint of possibility? Yes, maybe it’s a different possibility, one that hadn’t occurred to you before; but that’s the thing about possibilities, there are so many of them, and dying ones are eminently replaceable with those that are freshly germinating.
The act of surrender, of giving up is highly under-rated. So, if you are giving up on a long-held possibility, that’s ok, you’ll find a new one. And if your current pursuit of the possible sees you fighting a rising tide, give up, don’t do it. Yield to the impossible and save your energy for what is possible; you know the difference.
‘What I can do – I will’ by, Emily Dickinson
What I can do – I will –
Though it be little as a Daffodil –
That I cannot – must be
Unknown to possibility –