I have just discovered something tremendous, and I want to give it to you.

I’ve been in and out of some weird January slump. It’s mental and physical, so I have wonderful moments when everything is flying along, and then I bash into a brick wall where my brain doesn’t work and my body is yelling at me to stop. (I suspect there are several reasons for this, and I’m digging into them, because once I’ve dug up reasons then I have valuable information, and I can do something. I can take action and make choices and that makes me feel reassured.)

Anyway, today was a slump day. I felt rotten, and I was behind on my work, and I had that sense of slight panic because I need to be firing on all cylinders to do all the things I need to do. I considered cancelling everything and just starting again tomorrow.

But there was one thing I could not cancel. There was no way round this one.

I have a lovely university student I work with, and she had to get an essay in by tomorrow morning, and she needed me to help her with it. So I had to plunge into André Breton and the surrealist philosophy and all the ways we could express that with clarity and verve. (I sometimes think that is what I most help my university students with: clarity and verve.) 

I only knew one thing about Breton before we embarked on this adventure. He once ate a bar of soap and simulated delirium, with rabid foaming at the mouth, to shock a pair of starchy American tourists. (I learnt this fact years ago. I think it took place at a party in Paris, but I may be wrong.) Now, I had to give myself a crash course in the Surrealists, and their theory of life, and also learn about Breton’s obsession with the doomed and tragic figure of Nadja. 

I’d just about got up to speed, but it was a stretch. It’s not like I’m doing Othello or Hamlet, both of whom I can talk about as if I’m gossiping with old friends. It’s not the Repeal of the Corn Laws, which I know like I know my own face. It’s strange territory for me, so I need all my brain. 

But I love this student and I want to give her my best and I absolutely could not let her down. My mind and body were yelling: stop, stop. But my spirit said: you have to go on. You have to find something. 

So I found something.

And this is the tremendous bit, which I was not expecting. The minute I plunged into this demanding and difficult task, I felt life and energy come back into me. This was tough, but it was meaningful. I had a purpose. I had to stretch all my sinews and my sinews suddenly decided that they adored being stretched. I was alive again, and I had a job which was not about me, but about someone I cared form and that made all the difference.

I’m not sure if I can spin one discrete event into a theory, but I have a passion for crafting new theories, so I’m going to give this one a go. It is: when you are emptied out and fed up and feeling as if you’ve got no power in you, do something hard. The instinct is to withdraw, to take the easy route, to do the bare minimum. And this might be sensible in some situations. But it might be worth trying the tough route, and seeing if that calls on your terrific, resilient reserves, who are just waiting to march across the green land. 

I’m going to remember this and try it again, next time the slump comes. I like the idea of reminding myself that I can do more than I think I can do. I like the idea of rising. I am going to hear the trumpets, and match their hopeful, triumphant note.