Snow way of getting there…

Most of you in the UK might have noticed that today has been somewhat snowy. So snowy, in fact that large swathes of the country have seen road closures, accidents, blocked pavements, drifts of the white stuff and general cutting off of transportation. My delightful weekend house guests made it about 100 yards down the road before they quite simply couldn’t get any further (and they were heading from the relatively lightly-affected county of Suffolk towards Oxfordshire, where the snowfall has been far more substantial).

In such circumstances, it simply becomes impossible for certain things to be done. Whether that’s a major cross-country journey, a trip to the shops, the ability to get to work or school, or to honour other appointments, safety and logistical concerns mean that these things cannot go ahead. And thus, apologies must be made, postponements or cancellations, and alternative plans conjured.

We’ve had some very insightful chats, we three snowbound in Suffolk, about the psychology of Not Being Able To Get There. At what point does the onus on you to overcome the odds fall away because of actual danger or physical impossibility? How guilty should you feel if you can’t make it to that meeting? How much responsibility should you bear for meteorological uncertainty?

The simple answer is usually: none. Since most of us can’t control the weather (and indeed even when Robert Vaughn managed it in Superman III, it didn’t end terribly well for him), we are also not in control of its impact. We don’t have personal gritters, or ways of clearing the train tracks in time; nor indeed do most of us enjoy access to personal helicopters or rocket packs to get us to our destinations another way. Sometimes, we just can’t get there.

Snowman in the garden

But it’s easy to feel – whether freelance or full-time employed – that actually it is your responsibility. That somehow, Shackleton-like, you should be marching across fields with snow-shoes strapped to your feet, or negotiating icy pavements with crampons and ski poles. We have a nasty habit of taking the blame for things which we can’t, in any way, control ourselves. And of course this doesn’t have to take the form of anything as extreme as a national snow day. It might just be that your train is delayed, or you have a flat tyre.

I can identify the very occasion on which I realised that actually, such instances were not my fault. I was catching an early morning train across London to get to a class I was due to teach. The sheer pressure on the rail network meant that it was basically impossible to fit on said train after 7.30am, so that was the train I was due to catch, even though the class didn’t start until 11.30am and the journey was less than an hour. When the train arrived at 7.30, it was half the number of carriages that it usually was, so of course, none of us waiting on the platform could get on it. Nor could most of us get onto the next; or the next; or the next. By the time I finally negotiated my way northwards towards King’s Cross and beyond, hours had gone by. The station I was waiting at did not service any other trains going in even vaguely the right direction without my needing to make umpteen complex changes… all of which would have taken me back to meet the half-length original train further up the line. I texted work. I rang the mobile numbers of two colleagues, neither of whom picked up. I spent most of this procedure in a mounting state of panic – here I was, letting the side down and potentially running late and looking lazy and disorganised and… and then I called the organisation’s switchboard. I was told that because I didn’t know the surname of the departmental secretary I needed to speak to that they couldn’t connect me. At this point, I officially ran out of energy to care. I had gone to every possible length I could think of. I was not responsible for the length of the trains, for their continued delays, for the inefficiency of the switchboard. I managed, at last, to get a text response from a colleague who dropped in to tell my students that my 45-minute journey eventually took three and three-quarter hours, and I would be late to class. And I arrived tired, a bit grumpy, but absolutely determined that it was not my fault that I was so late.

Since that ludicrous morning’s journey, I have hung on to the epiphany that sometimes, circumstances utterly beyond our control cause us to change our plans. It’s seldom ideal when this happens, and can be miserable and irritating. But the crucial thing to remember is that sometimes, in the memorable words of Donald Rumsfeld, stuff happens… and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. And you know what? That’s alright. Enjoy your snow day. You’ll get back to work in the end, don’t you worry.

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