In Search of Serenity

Last night on the phone my brother and I were laughing about the 'family madness'. I do us all a great favour by putting that in the singular – in all fairness we have quite a large number of psychoses in varying degress of severity, and not all of them amusing. But if one of us thinks of something we'd like to do, well there is no rest to be had until it is done. Task-oriented is far too feeble a word to describe us; perhaps task-frenzied would be better, but we put heart, soul and scary amounts of energy into whatever task we perform. I have very vivid childhood memories of my mother regularly smashing the ornaments with her tornado-dusting style, and when my father paid my brother to dig the potatoes in the vegetable patch, there was only the pale pink rectangle of his back to be seen, frying gently in the days before sunscreen, as clods of earth flew in a wide and gritty dustcloud. He would have blisters for a week afterwards, but the job would have been finished in record time. As for me, well, I was often in trouble just about the point where I started reading my third book of the day. 'You'll ruin your eyesight!' my mother told me, and she was right, but it changed nothing, neither then nor now.

On the positive side, then, you can't call my family shirkers; in fact when they were giving out zeal and enthusiasm we must have gone round the queue twice by mistake. But if I am to recover from ME and stay well afterwards, I do know in my heart that the excessiveness inherent in this kind of behaviour is going to have to be addressed. It often translates into an exhausting need to undertake industrial quantities of work. Instead, I must go in search of serenity. When I draw up my list of things to do in the morning, I am going to have to marshal an attitude of calm detachment, rather than the mental rolling up of sleeves, stoking of the furnaces, manic shift into fifth gear, etc, that happens now.

Something has clearly gone awry with what Winnicott would have called my 'transitional space' or the way that we allow a project to grow on us before we finally undertake it. So, Winnicott noticed how, if a baby was sitting happily on its mother's lap with a few magpie-picked objects in front of it, say a silver spoon or a bright plastic ring, it would eventually, after a little while, reach out for one of the objects and begin to play with it (probably thwacking the mother in the eye, if experience tells me anything). Simple enough, right? But quite complex really, as the child has to recognise that the object out in the world might have something to do with him or her, or equally, that he or she may have something they can do with it. Transitional space is the space that is opened up inside us to allow the world in for a little bit, to try it out as it were and have a think about it. It's why children have to be allowed to be bored; if games and tasks are perpetually thrust upon them, they will never learn to negotiate that space themselves. Similarly there must be entertainments on offer or else that horizon will look very bleak indeed. Correctly managed transitional space is just fab – it's the arena of play and creativity, it's the modest kingdom in which we are in charge and yet also free and hopefully preparing to have fun.

But like all mental spaces, it can be very fragile. Easily diminished by disappointment, or impinged on by external voices of authority, or simply packed up and taken away by us when life is looking very serious and full of nothing but hard work. Winnicott reckoned that if people forgot to play, no matter how old they were, they were in big trouble. So, although it cannot transform a task that is in itself loathsome, it helps to use transitional space in the face of a task you approach with reluctance. Stop and take a pause, do not force it on yourself, but rather consider it for a few moments, playing with it in your mind. It won't take long and it may make the world of difference.

3 thoughts on “In Search of Serenity

  1. I can entirely sympathise with the nagging single-mindedness that makes us keep going on something until it’s damned-well finished. I suffer from this too. And I think it’s genetic – tales are told of a maiden great-aunt who would regularly sit and read books until the ashes overflowed the grate. Sound familiar? I never knew her, as she died when I was very small, but I think I would have liked her – and my mum is apt to compare me to her (with some exasperation) when I’m stuck into a project.

    I’m just recovering from a bout of task-frenzy myself, having finally finished rewriting my photographic website ( – shameless plug). There wasn’t actually anything wrong with it before, but I’ve discovered the joys of standards-compliant and more accessible ways of doing things, and once that bee was in the bonnet, it bloody well buzzed until I got the job done. I should have a rest now, but I’ll probably just move on to the next site that needs a tweak. Why do we do this to ourselves!?

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