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A drop in the ocean

Up in the Orkney Islands they have the Churchill Barriers - four man made causeways covering 1.5 miles, linking the Orkney mainland to the smaller islands to the south. The work was done during the second world war, and completed mainly by Italian prisoners of war. It was achieved by dropping a mixture of five and ten tonne concrete blocks into the ocean to build up a barrier over the surface, on which a road could be built.

I often think what it must have been like for those prisoners of war. To have come from their homeland in Italy, up to a small remote island off the northern coast of Scotland, the barren landscape, the sometimes inhospitable weather, thousands of miles from home, held as prisoners of war - those must have been difficult things to deal with in themselves. To then be told that their job while they’re there is to cast concrete blocks, 6 foot by 6 foot, and then drop them in the ocean to build a bridge between islands, it must have felt like an impossible task. Imagine filling your bathtub almost full and then throwing pebbles the size of a 50p piece into the middle until you’ve built a barrier that divides the bathtub in two and you get the idea. I can imagine them dropping the first block into the ocean and watching it sink to the bottom, almost out of sight, and their souls sinking with it.

I think of this because in a lot of ways it mirrors what we often go through when we start to make changes in our lives. We know what we want to change, we know what we need to do, but the act of doing it can feel herculean in magnitude, an impossible mountain to climb. A lot of the time we look for the easy way to get where we want to go, the simpler, quicker or less painful way. And sometimes we can have some short term success with that. But to build something that will endure, that will be stable enough to last through the difficult times, we have to put in the hard work and graft. And we have to endure the pain that sometimes bring, as well as committing the time to it.

It’s also about having faith. The Churchill barriers were meticulously designed and tested beforehand, so they knew the plan would work. But I can imagine at the start even the designers must have had moments of doubt. When the first dozen blocks, hundred blocks, thousand blocks disappeared beneath the water's surface without trace, there must have been doubt in their minds. Often we know the path we’re taking is the right one, but we don’t see the results we want initially. If we eat healthier for a week we don’t suddenly find we’ve lost that extra stone we want to shift or we’ve dropped a dress size. If you take up running you don’t go running a couple of times and then suddenly you can run a marathon. You have to have faith that if you keep putting in the work that the results you’re looking for will come with time, even if you don’t see a shift in the early stages. And of course it can be really easy to lose heart when we don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.

This is often true of counselling, it can take a number of sessions before you start to feel a change taking place. With my longer term clients I’ve sometimes found that there is an initial pickup in mood or emotions, which is usually down to having the space to talk, getting a non-judgemental view on things and a fresh perspective, but after that there is often a period where the work is hard. There’s a real need to graft away at it, and the rewards at this stage can feel like they’re less and less. Much in the same way that dieting can yield a larger loss at the start and then a much slower rate of loss after the first few weeks. At this point it’s about having faith that there is progress being made and you will get where you’re going. That can be really hard, both for the client and the therapist!

The same applies not just to counselling but to our mental health in general. How often do you find yourself so busy that you can’t remember the last time you stopped and took time just for you? We might know that we should, but when you do take the time to stop and give yourself the time and space you need how often do you find it hard to sit still? To just do nothing? Or to give yourself permission to do something you enjoy, when the washing is piled up, the cupboards need sorting through and the carpet needs vacuuming? We might find that after giving ourselves the space the first time we don’t feel any better for it, that in fact we feel worse because we’ve neglected the things we “should” be doing. But it’s important to have faith that in giving yourself the time and permission to do something for you that you will see the positive results over time.

The Churchill barriers took years to build and in the end used around 66,000 concrete blocks. But what remains has stood for 70 years, and creates a vital lifeline between the islands. I’ve driven over them barriers hundreds of times, and each time I marvel at the sheer force of will it must have taken for them to be created. I think of those prisoners of war, so far from home, and their strength to endure such hardships (if you ever go up to Orkney the Italian Chapel has to be seen to be believed). And I think that sometimes we need to keep going, even when the going is tough and we’re not sure we’re actually making progress. Because a small step at a time is still a step forward.