I’ve never played the lottery. Secretly, I’ve prided myself on the fact that whatever rewards have come my way have been earned by hard work. So it comes as a small shock to realise that I play a kind of lottery every day. This happens without my conscious intention, but it underpins everything I do. More than that, it makes the process of living possible to me. It works like this: at any given time I’m nursing a secret hope, exactly like the hope of the lottery player that his numbers will come up, but my secret hope relates to me alone. Most commonly it’s to do with the work I’m engaged on: my film script will become the basis of an Oscar-winning film; my novel will be acclaimed; my television series will be the talk of everyone I know. As projects come and go, I shift my secret hope from one to the next, juggling all the time to keep open the possibility that my life will be transformed, at some unspecified time in the future. I think this is one of the reasons I work on so many projects at once. They can’t all die on me at the same time, can they? My actual experience is that most projects do either collapse before completion, or fail after completion, so my spread-betting makes sense. For example, right now I’m at different stages on a film project for a brilliant director; a ten-part TV series; a novel; and most embryonic and distant of all, a plan to write and direct a small film of my own. These projects may all die, but they can’t die soon. I reckon I’ve got at least two years of hope bottled up here.
Then there’s all the lesser beacons that I set shining on the path ahead: we’re planning to refurbish our London base, and I love to picture how it will be when it’s done. Christmas is coming, and all the children will be home. In January there’s skiing. In July there’s Corsica. And in the meantime, each day reaches out some little gleam of delight: the glass of wine in the evening, the sinking into my bed to sleep at night. All of which is commonplace, until I start to see the pattern running through my behaviour.
These are all childish longings for what’s not yet come. At no point do I seek my delight in the present moment.
As soon as one of these anticipated rewards arrives, I’m reaching ahead again; not exactly wanting something better, it’s not greed; but I have become addicted to living in hope. There’s something ridiculous about this. I’m now undeniably in the later stages of my life, but here I am, still acting like an eager teenager, for whom the best is all to come. When do I give up? When do I say, This is it, this is my life, it’s a good life, and it’s happening to me right now? When do I let myself off the treadmill?
I’ve always loved the Nunc dimittis, that moment when Simeon, who has kept himself alive until he finally sees Jesus, takes him in his arms and says, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.’ That’s a moment to live for, the moment when you tell yourself, There’s no more. I can be let go. I’m not on the way to somewhere else. I’m here. Now.
So I’m tired of the conditional life, the not-yet life, the waiting on the lottery draw. But I’m addicted to it. It’s the engine that drives me. How do other people get from day to day? As my friends age with me I want to ask them: how do you do it? After retirement, after the children have left home, after the phone has stopped ringing, after the emails no longer fill the screen, what happens?
This, by the way, is one of the main themes of my next novel, where it becomes known as the ‘half-death’. One life ends, but you live on, perhaps for decades. Doing what? Living a real life for the first time?
I love the evening prayer from The Book of Common Prayer:
‘O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.’