September 27, 2013 6:52 pm

Tortoises know a thing or two

‘Hibernation is one of nature’s greatest inventions. I think it’s often the best possible response to hard times’

Regular readers of this column will know that I don’t really believe in animals. They can’t talk. They can’t sing. They don’t send thank-you notes. If you tell one your troubles, does it get out the gin and remind you of your former triumphs while escorting you to the local kebab shop? If you’ve had a lousy day and don’t want to talk about it, does a pet soundlessly manoeuvre a cup of tea to the left of your elbow and disappear?

I like Babar, it is true, because we share a love of grey and green. I like Paddington and always think of him when I eat marmalade or travel by train or go to the circus or buy a new mattress – and I do one of these things most days. I love Hello Kitty; I have admired the snow leopard in Central Park Zoo; but beyond that, animals and I go our separate ways. Or so I thought until today. Because it strikes me this morning, when I can’t help noticing that I’m not waving but drowning, that animals, well, they have some excellent ideas.

More

Susie Boyt

When the environment becomes too hostile for an animal, it has to find a way to cope. Some animals migrate out of the area; others enter an inactive state, in which they stay until conditions suit them better.

Hibernation, it seems to me, is one of nature’s greatest inventions. I think it’s often the best possible response to hard times. Sometimes you just have to hand it to tortoises. They know a thing or two.

Very occasionally, the show doesn’t have to go on any more. Now and then, the curtain needs to come down, and even the cheerful ice-cream lady should pack up her stall and rinse the vanilla chilblains on her fingers and lay low until a bit of time passes, and the heart of the pain begins to ebb away.

Today I am that lady. There are lots of pink roses and white blankets. The blinds are drawn. Time is going slowly.

. . .

When I worked as a bereavement counsellor, I was struck by the fact that the people who came to see me who fared the best were often those who allowed themselves to give up on life for a bit.

It was usually the people who were able to cut themselves some slack and fence themselves off who managed to get their strength back the soonest. For those who had to remain deep in the hustle and bustle of ordinary life, with no quiet time at all, the world often seemed to stay darker for longer. Grief clung on, perhaps because it felt unheard and unheeded.

It takes a lot of confidence to isolate yourself in difficult times but it can be a good way of processing the major transitions in life. It’s not fashionable but simplifying, limiting, scaling back your world in the face of trouble can help the trouble to pass.

Sometimes, in the wake of a tremendous disappointment or loss, it seems impossible for even your most sensitive friend to say the right thing. The margins for the correct kind of help become so narrow as to be almost non-existent.

It’s not a bad idea to protect everyone from clashes in this department. I think it’s wise also to question what really is essential at such times. There is a belief that if you let the small things go, and don’t adhere to your normal routine, the extent of the unravelling that follows will be so wild that no one will ever recover – yet I am not sure this is true.

Strangely, at very happy times, times of great emotional triumph, hibernation can also be a valuable response. A good crisis, an epiphany such as falling in love, can bring with it feelings that are overwhelming, almost demanding more from you than you feel you are able to give. When your feelings seem monumental and historic, what could be better than disappearing for a spell?

“Let’s get crossed off everybody’s list,” as the song “Let’s Get Lost” recommends, or, “We won’t have it known, dear, that we own a telephone”, as they plot in “Tea for Two”. If it is possible to hibernate, to sleep in the warm and process things for a spell and make the necessary personal adjustments to your new state, in private, it’s a wonderfully saving thing to be able to do.

. . .

As my dreadful day wears on, an email arrives from a friend: a former Marine from the Bronx who worked in fashion and now helps film stars bulk up for superhero movie roles. He has been mulling over my hibernation ideas. “Another path some animals take in the face of a hostile environment is the path of evolving to the level of predator, so that they can feed on the other animals,” he writes. “I, myself, am not fond of this path because it often lacks the morality I require to live at peace with myself. But it’s an option.”

In my pink-and-white cocoon, I sit up suddenly. I wonder?

susie.boyt@ft.com, @SusieBoyt

-------------------------------------------

Letter in response to this article:

I just sat, then things slowly started up again / From Ms Ann Hurst

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts