- Created on Tuesday, 01 November 2011 00:00
- Written by David Frith
Do you know the feeling when you go to fetch or do something, and once you get to the place, you’ve forgotten what you came for? Sometimes retracing our steps, or thinking hard about what we were doing helps. Sometimes it’s just plain gone – until we get a lucky reminder later on – ah, yes, that was it!
Or it may be we’re in the middle of a fiddly job or thinking through a complex issue, and an interruption occurs: the phone rings or someone calls us or something else comes into our mind. Then the job is disrupted and can be delayed, neglected or fraught; or the train of our thoughts gets derailed.
I’m going to call this common experience The Man from Porlock. Why ever that?
The writer and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who wrote the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” about the amazing adventures of a troubled seafarer) came up with the idea. You know how before writing anything important you need to do lots of thinking and planning. Think, for instance, of how difficult it can be to find the words, which express our thoughts and feelings when a crisis or bereavement occur. Coleridge was no doubt planning and thinking about a great idea for a future work when an unexpected caller from the nearby village of Porlock turned up to see him. And that was the end of the great idea.
The Man from Porlock could stand for anything that disrupts the ordered, planned or hoped-for course of events: the unexpected visitor or phone call, yes; but also things like illness, bad news, accidents we would definitely wish hadn’t happened. So how do we react when such things occur? With small matters, grumpily, I expect, as Coleridge did when the Man from Porlock showed up and disrupted his thoughts. Irritation, annoyance, anger, sadness or regret in more serious issues…depending on what guise the Man from Porlock takes in our life.
He can certainly impede our understanding of the answers to life’s serious issues, the Big Questions, if you like, of the meaning and sense of our lives. Or has distraction become so constant that we never explore thoughts about our life’s spiritual journey and destination? Has the Man from Porlock called so often and thereby provided us with so many short-term spurious stop-gap answers, that such wider considerations have become irrelevant or scorned? But such distractions don’t really satisfy our deepest longings and fears. When the aches and pains and anxieties assail us at the darkest hour of the night, pretence and bravado tend to fall away as we fret and become aware of our heart beating…but for how long, O Lord?
Winter can be a glorious season, especially for those who relish energetic outdoor activities. It’s a season with a heightened, almost poignant delight in the smaller, subtler shades of light and colour and texture. It’s also the time of year for a more enforced indoor routine, often with its cosy overtones of feasting and hibernating in the warm den. But the prolonged darkness and bleakness can underline and heighten people’s anxiety, loneliness, and worries about all sorts of things: family, friends, finance, the economy, paying all those bills, that suspect bit on the roof, the future…
But are these things sometimes, perhaps, just another guise the Man from Porlock wears when trying to draw us away from what really matters? If Christianity means anything, it means a powerful hope that the bleak midwinter of nature’s death and decay is not all there is. How do we keep that light alive in the darkness?
Perhaps by making every conscious effort not to be distracted by the Man from Porlock in whatever guise he shows up. We need to call to mind and remember what it is that the Man from Nazareth is trying to tell us as the season approaches when we celebrate the arrival of his presence in our midst: the staggering concept of Immanuel, God with us.
Reader in Training