Why the steep road is less travelled

Shaun is in his mid 50’s, a successful businessman and consultant. He’s also one of my Spoon by Spoon interviewees. In recent years he feels he’s lost his way a bit in his career and when we caught up months ago, he was in a reflective mood.  

Shaun shared lots of stories about his life. For example, he told me about his grandmother, Mary, and how he was incredibly fond of her. She was originally from Carricou, an island near Grenada. As Shaun put it “Carricou is a speck of an island. If you’re flying over in a plane, you’d miss it if you sneezed!”

Mary was one of the Windrush generation, arriving in the UK in the late 1950s. She survived intolerance and prejudice when she first lived in London’s Notting Hill, eventually settling in a terraced house in Ealing. For Shaun it was a place “that became the lighthouse for our family and others who were touched by her calm and wisdom.” Mary passed away many years ago and he recalls that over 150 people came to her funeral. She was much loved.

Decades later, Shaun still remembers a painting in Mary’s front room, a pristine place that was set aside for visitors. Where the back room was always noisy and full of chatting people, the front room offered Shaun some peace and quiet. “I would slip away to study the painting.” To this day Shaun can recall the picture vividly. He describes it to me whilst we’re on the phone. The mountain was so high that birds soared on the thermals and its summit was shrouded in thick white clouds. Mary was a religious woman and Shaun believes the top of the mountain represented heaven. There were distant shards of lightning on the horizon signalling a change in weather, or perhaps in fortune.

Two roads led up to the mountain’s veiled peak. One was broad – an easy walk that slowly wound up and around the mountain, with plenty of distractions and temptations to enjoy along the way. The other road was steep and narrow, zigzagging abruptly back and forth, with vertical drops either side. Once in a while, the broad road came tantalisingly close. It was tempting for Shaun. Would it be easier if he crossed to the broad road? “All I could see ahead of me was a road of sharp stones, setbacks, doubts. People that said, ‘you can’t do that or won’t make it.’”

Later in life Shaun was drawn back to the painting. In the quiet he would study it, looking at the huge rocks that blocked the way, that made the climb even harder. “I would imagine myself slipping and falling, trying desperately to focus on things in my control, finding a handhold to lift me over the boulder.”

There were plenty of hard times for Shaun. “I had a couple of good friends that passed away – one through cancer in his early 40s, another friend who killed himself.” It was a period when so many things were occurring for Shaun. “It meant my circle of protection was being chipped away, reduced to a point where my inner self was being exposed.

This painting of the mountain acted like a rock for Shaun, helping him through the dark times, even after his grandmother passed away. “Why did my she always keep on at me about resilience?” It would have been easy for Shaun to turn back or find a way across to the broad road. “Her life became a lesson for me on that narrow road about developing and maintaining resilience. Remaining positive, living to learn, laughing in the face of adversity and loving yourself.”

So why do we think in pictures and metaphors? How do they guide us through life? It is clear that metaphors help to ground some people. They act in a way to make sense of a complicated, often frightening world. 

Alex Fradera writes about metaphors in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. “Some people are literal minded – they think in black and white whereas others colour their worlds with metaphor.” Having a tendency to think in metaphors can affect how we respond to the world around us and how we interact with others. According to Alex, metaphors “illuminate, particularly when it comes to abstract concepts that can be hard to pin down, like the subtleties of emotions.”

Some of the most enduring metaphors are from stories in the bible and other religious texts. They are also deep rooted in folklore and the stories we are bathed in during our childhoods. Stories and metaphors are sewn into the lining of our lives. 

When I’m not writing I support people in a number of ways. I’m a psychologist and also a photographer so I often use my photographs to help people make sense of their lives. In one session a client selected this image below. She picked it up and sighed. “I need a shepherd. Someone to guide me through the night.”

I was talking to someone else and she said “you can never alter the wind, but you can re-set your sails.’’ Another beautiful image. Another wonderful metaphor that supports us on our journey. 

Back to Shaun and the mountain. “Right now, it feels like I’m in that cloud, walking up that track.” Shaun can’t see what’s in front of him because it’s opaque. All he can hear is noise. “It’s either side of me telling me to do certain things. Saying you need to do these really important things otherwise you’ll face the consequences. And all I’m wishing for is to blow those clouds away. To be able to say, ‘actually no, I’m going to go down this diversion because I can see where it’s taking me.’”

I really enjoyed the way Shaun painted this picture in our Spoon by Spoon conversation. It was a lovely analogy that brought to life his difficult choice – the hard path or the easy one. In fact I had known Shaun for many years when we had worked together. So at the end of the conversation I said, “I also think it sums you up really nicely.” When we had been colleagues I felt we were both on the broad road in terms of the type of work we both did and the organisation we worked for. But I could also tell that Shaun had a different way of seeing the world. “You always had half an eye on the narrow road. Perhaps that’s why we got on.”

Shaun agreed with my observation. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think it’s so embedded in me to think about the world like that.” He is confident about the future. He believes that if he can continue his journey up the narrow road he will “get to that point, that happy, happy place again, before my career ends.

The picture in his grandmother’s house has acted like a guide for Shaun’s life. It has created a set of principles by which he lives: try to take the steep road, forge your own path. Even when the voices either side try to put you off. Even when it’s hard. 

……..

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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