It’s not often that the news makes me laugh, but one item did last week (albeit laughter of a nervous, hysterical type).

BBC News at Ten featured a sinkhole which had sheared away the brick wall of a house in Ripon and caused three families to be evacuated. This cheery story was followed by a brisk trot through the six sinkholes which have appeared across Britain in February so far (more, apparently, by a factor of about a million than heretofore) before cutting back to George Alagiah, who looked as if he’d stumbled into the filming of some low-rent UK geo-porn.

It was so horrific, so improbable, so utterly, fantastically appalling – the ground literally, with no warning, swallowing up to open whatever was on its surface – that it couldn’t help but be hilarious in a morbid sort of way.

That night, lying awake as my family slept, as is my wont; mind buzzing and circling and picking away at the bones of long-dead problems, the sinkholes came back to me.

It struck me that they gave me an image for the mental landscape I have inhabited for years. A way to visualise the anxiety which sometimes makes any decision to build or explore or often even simply to move feel too fraught with danger to be risked. The constant, gnawing dread of what lies beneath the surface, of what catastrophe may be unleashed by one unwitting step.

The thing is that I know it’s both rational and irrational. Just as with the sinkholes, external factors beyond my control are by far the most likely cause of disaster. Retreating ever further into a smaller and smaller spot, shrinking myself to take up the least possible room and exert the lightest possible tread, isn’t a recipe for a risk-free life, let alone a happy and fulfilled one.

Even worse, I know that it is my mind itself which has eroded the strata of rock beneath my feet, fretting it into fragility, mined through with treacherous chasms of doubt.

I can see this and recognise that it’s so, yet still be too afraid to put my foot down on a new space, just in case it gives way beneath me.

It’s only been recently that I’ve learned that not everyone picks their way through life, afraid of each new step. That being frightened as a defence mechanism is the exception, not the norm. That surveying life and all the decisions it entails as a series of booby traps lying in wait for the unwary or the intrepid is neither healthy nor helpful.

What to do? I don’t know. I don’t want my children to pick up the message that life is so fraught with danger that inertia is the safest policy.

I suppose that knowing it’s not right is a start.

But I suspect that backfilling the excavations will take as much time as learning to step off the spot.


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