Finding the courage to ask for answers

Personally, I found the exercise surprisingly effective. I analyse processes and plans for a living – I am always thinking things through. But I don’t consider my own navel very often and the question I chose to explore – “Why am I procrastinating on this spreadsheet?” is not a question I would ask often or have been comfortable trying to answer. The first thing I noticed was that by slowing down and giving my self time to actually look at what was around me – without a particular agenda or priority – I was a lot more observant.

I like to look, to consider things, but I am busy – there are always things I should be doing and considering the quality of the brickwork isn’t on the agenda. The fact that I notice a variation is something I would normally congratulate myself on, but giving myself licence to spend ten minutes just looking at the street, knowing I couldn’t see everything and that I didn’t need to, was extremely relaxing.

Fate encouraged me: I found five pence! A cynic might complain that fate pays less than the minimum wage but I chose to see it as a good omen. It would be churlish to criticise. There were a couple of other “warm-up exercises”. We were asked to look for patterns – and Borough is full of them – from the simple geometrical precision of drain covers to the more complex natural patterns in pine cones or bird feathers. Spatial patterns created by street bollards and undulations in a flint faced wall. Temporal patterns overlay all of them with parents taking school children back and forth across the same cracked paving slabs, or delivery and cellarmen on daily pilgrimage, waitresses laying tables. There were easy wins here which subconsciously built confidence.
We were asked to look for beauty and in a food market surrounded by dead things – for all that I like the place – beauty, I was quickly reminded, is an abstract and entirely subjective thing. Thus prepared and perhaps sensitised to our surroundings and our own internal thoughts, we were asked to spend an hour loosely aware of our “question”. Something not too big and not too small, and which we needed fresh inspiration to try and answer. The idea is that we explore the question while being aware of our surroundings as we wandered and to “ask the streets for their wisdom”.

I spent the first 20 minutes trying to refine my question, but I was never short of inspiration to help seed ideas. Borough Market is full of people who have chosen to do the work they do. Yet for all this, few looked happy to be where they were. I was surrounded by people who looked bored, the few exceptions were tourists, but even they often looked perplexed rather than at peace with their leisure. I returned to the idea that a job is easier to complete if you have a purpose in doing it, so I asked “what is my purpose in doing this job?” And having wandered to the edge of the market I looked up from my narrow alleyway and saw the majesty that is Southwark Cathedral. Clearly, if that was my answer, I was asking too big a question! I turned and headed back to the Market. It occurred to me that just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the attitude to what we do – how we perceive the task in hand – is also entirely within our own control.

Whether we have to do something or want to do something makes a profound difference to our motivation.

I had to pass under one of the less salubrious arches while a train screeched overhead. The ground was covered in bird droppings and the path was crowded with refuse bins. Beyond were the brighter lights of the market stalls. I thought about the tasks I had been carefully ignoring at work and while I still wasn’t sure why I hadn’t finished them – I could see that if I wanted to move on to better things, I would just have to get through the less pleasant bits and get it done. If the market streets were imparting wisdom it was to remind me that making myself do it and deciding how I felt about it, were entirely within my control and as an immediate priority, that was all I needed to know.

Afterwards, we regrouped and had the opportunity to share our thoughts and observations. One woman explained that her question was about how to help her son who had recently dropped out of school, because of anxiety attacks. She had been braver than I and had directly approached a group of boys about his age. She had explained a little of what she was doing and she asked them how they coped with fear. The group had been helpful and informative. One explained that he too had been out of school for two years and offered her both the name of the project which had helped him return to mainstream education and contact details for the psychiatrist who had supported him.

Clearly, when seeking answers it’s not just about defining the question – it’s also, fundamentally, about having the courage to ask.

by Aidan Cuffe

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