Life on Marsden: What if we didn't spend so much time ruminating? Think about it…


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The Independent Online

I have literally no idea what I'm doing, and if there's a phrase that sums up these weekly missives I hope it's that one. I work in an industry where you're generally required to be bold, forthright and assured, to express opinions forcefully and then let everyone know you've expressed some forceful opinions in a series of self-aggrandising announcements on social media. Instead, I've opted to express uncertainty and confusion. I've ruminated on my anxiety over misread signals, racist jokes, swearing barbers an d awkward silences to provide reassuring solidarity for anyone as fretful as I am. But I haven't come up with many answers, and I still experience great unease. Rumination is vexing.

A few days ago, I visited a grand house in an Essex village. The owner is looking to rent it to artists, writers and musicians who seek a relaxed, enabling environment in which they can sit about all day panicking about the future of creative industries. I was shown into a room full of books, period furniture and oil paintings, one of which featured a miserable bloke holding a sack. He seemed like my kind of guy; his eyes, or rather an artist's impression of his eyes, communicated a familiar despair. “That was painted by the owner's grandfather,” I was told. “One day, he arrived home to find a burglar ransacking the house. Having apprehended him, he made an offer: if the burglar sat for a portrait, there and then, he wouldn't call the police.” The portrait perfectly captures the burglar's discomfort at having to stare for hours at a bloke whose house he's just tried to burgle. The painting screams: “What am I doing?” He'd been forced to ruminate. And rumination, as we've already established, is vexing.

If you've ever had cognitive behavioural therapy, you'll know that one goal is to rid yourself of rumination, of the question “What if?” (What if I hadn't burgled the house of an eccentric portrait painter? What if he's just killing time until the police arrive?) But there's another kind of “What if?” The curious what-if, the healthy what-if… What if I press this button? What if I mix caesium and fluorine? This kind of what-if propels you forward, stops you ruminating, and forces you to try new things. So, what if I stop writing this column and do something else instead? Let's find out.