Learning to resist familiar stories, efficiency at all costs, and false narratives
A weekly writing practice in the form of wonderings sparked by encounters with words, work, and the world.
Resisting familiar stories
On Sunday, Meera Syal was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship. Her speech was truly stunning. She weaved together love-filled moments from her own life in a message about the power of storytelling. 'We know how much it matters what stories we choose to tell, but more importantly, who gets to tell them... Thank you, finally, to all my fellow travellers. All the ones who've been made to feel, because of their race, or sex, or class, that their stories don't matter. They do. Because the untold stories are the ones that change us and sometimes can change the world. Please keep going. I see you.'
Working in education and now with teachers and leaders, I am conscious that who is represented in the curriculum and how their lives are portrayed and understood communicates to children their own level of value in society (Bishop, 1990). When a child sees themselves in curriculum texts and resources in tokenistic ways, or only ever in association with stories of trauma or exceptionalism, they continue to feel marginalised (Mbakwe in Elliott et al., 2020).
The analogy of mirrors and windows is a helpful one when considering how art forms include or exclude. Bishop suggests of books, in particular, that they 'are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience' (1990).
When an already marginalised person solely encounters windows into worlds other than their own or a white person experiences only mirrors of their own existence then each person’s sense of place and belonging in the world is significantly distorted (Ramdarshan-Bold, 2019). Where there are both mirrors and windows, ‘the benefit is twofold as it serves as affirmation in one instance and broadens world outlook in another’ (CLPE, 2021). In my own reading, whilst it's a great comfort when my own experiences of the world are found in someone else's, I consciously resist familiar stories as my only diet.
I wonder how all creators can seek to amplify stories of worlds other than their own as much as they share their own? I wonder how consumers can seek out stories that offer windows over unfamiliar vistas as much as they gaze into mirrors that reflect more familiar outlooks?
Resisting efficiency at all costs
After receiving their monthly newsletter for some time, I finally joined the Ethical Design Network Slack channel this week. The network appears to be designed primarily for technology designers and developers but as a content designer, I'm not letting that stop me! I was drawn in by their latest discussion on the potential harms of AI technologies and our responsibility, as designers, to avoid causing such harm.
Perhaps surprise really shouldn't have been my reaction at this stage of my life but I have observed the sudden prevalence of AI technologies in our lives in disbelief. Everywhere I turn, users are extolling the virtues of these technologies to make our lives easier. Even those who acknowledge the numerous ethical concerns are continuing their use regardless.
Such ethical concerns include:
Intellectual property concerns over the content it generates
I once wrote of algorithms that 'they are what they eat. If their diet consists of racial, class, gender bias and a general disregard for equity, guess what they will become? They recognise patterns in the data they’re given. Our society is filled with a multitude of patterns of discrimination and all an algorithm can do is learn from this and magnify it' (Tyreman, 2020).
My own concerns are that the creators of these languages are unlikely doing enough to counter ethical concerns. Speed is their primary goal, which isn’t usually compatible with addressing systemic bias and ensuring quality content. In a world that loves productivity and efficiency, there is little incentive for these AI creators to operate any differently.
It could be suggested that the best we can hope for is to take advantage of what the tools offer us, remain aware of the problems, and attempt to course correct afterwards. Given how challenging this is on individual and system levels, I can't imagine it will be straightforward on an AI level. And surely we all deserve better than this for ourselves and one another? I for one may dip a tentative toe into AI's murky waters, but I'll mostly be watching and waiting patiently on the sidelines for alternative tools that may have taken longer to produce but have ethical decision-making at their heart.
I wonder what might happen if the world abstained from using AI technologies until not insignificant ethical concerns are addressed? We can but hope.
Resisting false narratives
Recently, I was reminded by some honest reflections from a colleague on breaking the habit of a lifetime and this post fromthat it was only 8 years or so ago that a leadership coach introduced me to the concept of the weekend. I discovered that these days weren't for catching up on emails, meeting deadlines, or producing new work after all. As a teacher, weekends, like evenings, had become essential windows of marking and planning time. When I became a leader, this time remained necessary for me to feel as though I was remotely 'on top' of my workload.
Early in my teaching career, I had accepted the extra work given that I was teaching more than full-time including Saturday classes and studying my PGCE in the evening. By the time I had a few years of teaching under my belt and had begun to lead professional development for hundreds of staff, my workload had reached unprecedented levels. Unable to see the situation changing any time soon, I was grateful for my leadership coach and the introduction of the weekend to offer a window of respite in my bloated schedule.
Time off from work opened up a space for me to reconnect with loved ones, spend time in nature, and recognise that it was also perhaps the 160-mile round trip to work each day that was contributing to my hopeless exhaustion. A shift had occurred.
A few months into my new job with a reduced commute and the same feelings of overwhelm began to rise once more. My manager, possibly sick of having the same conversations with me each fortnight bought me a copy of 'Do Less, Get More' by Shaa Wasmund. The book opens by exploring the comfort we may derive from being busy, including the illusion of purpose it offers. Flicking through the book now and I can see from the folded page corners and scrawls in the margins* that much of it resonated. If only that had been all that was needed to change my stubborn habit of work over all else. Still, a shift had occurred.
Like many lessons, this one will take a long time to be truly learned. I think it may have beenwho spoke of such cycles of learning. We often feel frustration at being stuck in the same cycle repeatedly but we may also notice that something has shifted. We may be greeted time and again by familiar problems or emotions but we have fresh learning and experiences that allow us to escape the cycle a little differently each time.
I don't learn from my repeated behaviours unless I can unpick what drives them. Working with coaches, therapists, books, and completing a boundaries course has helped me to identify my false narratives:
‘My worth is derived from what I produce, especially at work’
‘Feelings of inadequacy can be resolved by working to prove myself to others’
‘Work is the only place I belong. Seeking surface-level connection here will protect me from my doubt that I am capable of meaningful relationships’
‘Rest can only be granted as a reward for doing my very best work, at every moment, of every single day’
I think you can see now that my workload issues weren't entirely associated with the nature of my profession or my daily commute! The first step is to notice when these false narratives are beginning to take over. Beginning to course correct is the next. Sustaining this new route is the challenge. The new route involves time off from work on mornings, evenings and weekends. It involves self-compassion and new narratives to challenge the false ones.
Over the years, my cycles of choosing rest over work before falling into relapse have increased in length, gradually creating distance between what was once familiar and my preferred way of being. When a relapse occurs, I unpick what triggered it in order to reach a greater understanding of myself and I move gently towards my new behaviours with self-compassion. Sounds like I'm totally nailing this, doesn't it? On occasion. Barely. Most of the time I stumble through the cycles of learning, unlearning and relearning clinging to hope for a better future.
Evenings and weekends are no longer filled with work but they are often accompanied by a low hum that urges me to fill the space with something, anything. These spaces have demanded active resistance to the call to productivity. In late spring, summer, and early autumn, my hammock - inspired by- becomes my regular resting place. In it, my body is suspended from duty. The only place I’m encouraged to wander is in the vast skies overhead, framed by tree branches, my feet being tenderly tickled by the breeze. Here, time elongates, ticking by to a soundtrack of birds singing, the neighbours busily sweeping and repairing, dogs barking in the distance and a radio offering mellow sounds. I shift my body slightly and the hammock sways a little, there's comfort in rest too.
I wonder what more I'll discover in resisting the comfort of work?
*Yes, I'm one of those people who folds pages and makes notes in pen. I firmly believe that once I've bought a book, it's mine to inhabit.
Resisting the illusion of success
I was thrilled to discover a recommendation for the podcast, 'We Are Childless’ recently. I selected an episode that sounded great and set off on my daily walk. The episode began relatably enough, helping me to feel less alone in my own childless life. After all, aren’t many of us longing for a less lonely life? It wasn't long before the episode traversed into less familiar terrain. As you now know, I'm always keen to broaden my vistas with stories dissimilar to my own so I persevered with the listen. The podcast guest was congratulated on what she’d achieved in place of children. This, I could fully appreciate - let’s have more ‘I went on a solo adventure’ parties and I ‘did the difficult thing I’d been putting off most of my life’ celebrations.
However, there was a tone to the conversation that I perceived to be that women without children are expected to fill their time with grand achievements of other kinds. Perhaps I'm more comfortable with my decision to be childless than I used to be. Perhaps I've learned that I don't owe the world anything, though I can choose to give it if I wish. Perhaps I don't need to replace the ambition of raising children with some other lofty goal. Perhaps I get to decide what success looks like.
In, Sian suggests, in her review of the latest book from that diving deeper into success isn't the answer: 'It isn’t all flotsam and jetsam down there but it isn’t all hidden treasures either and if you stay too long, it will lay claim to you.' I choose to resist society’s pressure on my childless life.
My version of success currently includes: relishing the joy of a daily walk, moving my body, reading beautiful words, putting my creations out into the world without reaching burnout, hopefully discovering that meaningful connections with humans are possible, somehow working out what to eat each day for dinner, and figuring out how to experience joy at frequent points along the way. Achieving all of this will be more than enough success for me.
I wonder if I can continue to resist the world’s perceptions of ‘success’?
Other words that have sparked wonderings lately
Having experienced various burnouts over the years, managing my energy is something I'm often occupied with these days; noticing what depletes it, avoiding reaching empty and what activities recharge it once more. This article fromin thenewsletter suggests I may be attempting to pursue a helpful path: 'Preserving your energy means being unpopular sometimes. It means going against the grain. It means tapping into your truest needs. It means refusing to abandon yourself.’ I’m in active resistance to the abandonment of self.
I've been spending some time with this journalling prompt from: How do I feel about Rest? What stops me from taking time out for deep, restful self-care?
I was interested in Jocelyn K Glei's reflections on the extent to which we might be tempted to 'harvest, extract, push, pull, demand, or just generally force a project or task to happen', rather than being open to 'receiv[ing] what is needed in the moment. And what is needed could look many like different things: I might need insight because I'm stuck, I might need motivation because I'm disengaged, I might need energy because I'm tired.'
I was really interested to learn about Welsh cakes fromand their need to be decolonised: 'the Welsh cake, like the Welsh people, is born out of a complex relationship of cultural imperialism, Empire, language, geography, sugar, slate, and tea'…
This article from Elsie Owen, one of my favourite boundary-setting guides, helps me reflect on my continued journey not just to notice my needs but to ensure I name them to others.
Domenico Schillaci, in the latest Dense Discovery newsletter, describes a metaphor for the joys of adventure: 'Addina ca camina s’arricogghi ca vozza china’ in Sicilian dialect translates to ‘The walking hen comes home with a full crop.’ – a metaphor for the fact that the most exciting things in your life will happen when you go outside instead of sitting on the sofa.'
See you next Wednesday for more wonderings!