30 Mar 2019
A car door slams. Booted feet crunch on gravel. The figures make their way up the path, slowly, side by side.
They wear somber faces, and hold their caps on their chests.
The doorbell rings. You have a choice. Do you let them in?
It’s a real choice. If the news requires no action from you, you gain nothing by learning it. Even if it does, perhaps it should be retimed; occasional respites are essential.
Or rather, it would be a choice, except for one thing: once you’ve heard that first footstep on the driveway, you know that there is something to know, and that knowledge is in itself terrible. Perhaps more terrible. Often, though not always, our imaginations can generate horrors worse than the reality.
My partner and I faced this, over and over again, while co-running a company. We each had rules about working hours; eventually, we came to realise that those rules had to be exactly the same for both of us, and relentlessly enforced. Otherwise, bad news received by one of us could not be discussed (a strategy meeting, in bed, at 11pm is incredibly toxic in an environment where work is otherwise all-consuming), but would inevitably generate the Policeman on the Path effect in the other.
We found, as well, that once that effect had triggered, it was almost always better to give in. A Policeman on the Path cannot be dismissed. He waits.
I’m now encountering this again in a different context. Terrible things are happening to our country, to our allies, and to the world - both politically, and environmentally.
There’s no longer one delegate bringing grim news, but an entire conveyor-belt of them, lined up with by-the-minute updates from Westminster, Brussels, and the world.
Even though no action is required of me - indeed, part of the problem is that no action is possible - the constant flow of doom and panic is destructive to my ability to work, play, and (particularly) rest.
I’ve had some success in the past with simply blocking it out, generally via a strict no-news-sites policy. My friends know that there are things I don’t discuss. It’s a kind of zero-tolerance policy towards “bad news that requires no action”.
But that’s stopped working, because there are now too many holes, and as soon as a smidgen of information gets through - a glanced-at news headline, a mention-in-passing, an upset facebook status - the policeman is once again knocking on my door, and I find myself compelled to open it, and to get the full story.
Short of decamping once again to Dartmoor (an option I have considered, but while my employment is flexible, there are limits), I’m not entirely sure what I can do. Perhaps we’re all locked in to this, the psychological costs exceeding even the economic and social ones.
Perhaps the real problem is not that there’s a policeman on the path, but that the house is on fire.
fn1: More correctly, "police officer on the path".