Working It Out

One of the best books that I read last year was JD Taylor’s travelogue ‘Island Story‘ in which the author travelled round Britain on a clapped out old bicycle, a sort of contemporary flañeur if you like. He went from place to place meeting people as he went, often camping in parks when he could not get accommodation; but always talking with people and finding out their stories. I was very taken by the book, and the portrait is painted of a Britain that is really struggling with itself and finding it hard to progress (he toured in 2016 and from it you get a really sense why people were looking for change). He visited town after town finding whole communities that had lost their way and felt forgotten.

This is probably something that I will come back to in a later post, but today I want to talk about the part of the book that made the biggest impression on me. Just a couple of lines from a nearly 500 page long book, when Taylor was staying on Berneray Bay on the Scottish Island of North Uist, and talking to a fellow traveller who visited the area as often as she could:

She tells me of a man who stayed for four months, after a breakdown, possibly. He was silent, “just sat out there looking at the sea, every day”. Some riddle solved, he left, relieved.

(p. 220)

I am fairly sure that this made such an impact on me because, of all the people in the book that he met, this person, who he did not actually meet, was the one with whom I most closely identified. I cannot imagine what it must be like having a breakdown, I do not think that I have ever got to such a moment of crisis, but I can imagine reacting to it in such a way. I find staring out over water to be immensely therapeutic, and on the occasions when I have travelled by sea I could just spend hours gazing into the middle distance. The irony of this is that my body really does not like travelling by boat, and one of the reasons I have such an interest in balance (one of the main themes that I want to develop in this blog), is that my internal gyroscope is such that being at sea can really effect my sense of equilibrium.

For me, then, the sea is best experienced from the shore; making this vignette of Taylor’s even more appealing. The idea of this unknown man sitting by the sea every day for four months fills me with a sense of warmth and, in an odd way, romanticism. Actually I would go as far as say that I have an almost masochistic yearning to be in his situation, to have such a psychological puzzle to solve feels like my sort of challenge. In reality I expect that this is somewhat naïve and, actually, I would not want to be in that position; but I often wonder how I would react in such an extreme situation.

I think that this perhaps harks back to a situation around twenty years ago when a crisis at work led to a number of sleepless nights and a real fear that everything was falling apart. That weekend I found myself visiting a friend in Devon and it was during a long shared but unspoken walk along the beach that I managed to work out a solution that stood me in good stead for the next decade. This feeling of achievement, I think, makes me long for another such situation.

For me one of the keys to happiness as I get older is in reflecting on those moments when something knocks me sideways, pushes me off balance psychologically. I feel that every time this happens I am better equipped to ride out those moments which are troubling and I do not know what to do. I feel better equipped to ride the storm knowing that it will pass, to somehow own the problem or issue that has caused it. I guess that current term for it would be ‘resilience’; and I think trying to build this is one of the most important things that we can do for ourselves.

For me resilience is not about trying to skim over an issue or ignore it, it is not about thinking you are better than it. It is about having the ability to reflectively work through a situation and come out of the other side with a renewed sense of equanimity and my resilience intact, even enhanced. This, I am sure, is easier said than done and I feel as if I have had a fairly good run over the last few years, but if that big upheaval is just round the corner I would at least like to think that I could do something akin to the man on Berneray Bay and work through it in my own time, and my own way.

How do you work out your problems?

How do you build up your resilience?

Are these scenarios realistic?


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