Having just started my six-week summer sabbatical, I am currently experiencing the now familiar drop in energy levels and mood. This roughly 2 to 5 day drop as soon as a school holiday starts, which I know many educators experience, is one of the reasons I feel the current model of school holidays in Britain needs some kind of reform. I also believe it is why the current styles of leadership and methods of accountability within schools needs to change (see here, here and here for insights into this).
I believe the collectively-adhered-to cycle of rushing towards deadlines and targets, borne primarily out of a fear of not reaching them, and then suddenly stopping creates an unhealthy working culture (the same could be said of the NHS). I am not sure how credible the research base is, but I have often heard it said that the incidence of teachers dying within the first 18 months of retirement is higher than other careers. Again, I wonder if this is a result of the sudden and permanent drop in activity for a mind & body tuned into highs and lows of adrenalin?
Whilst I use the half-termly breaks for work, I spend most seasonal holidays (Christmas and Easter) and the summer break catching up with family, travelling, re-engaging more seriously in sport and reading. Work in schools can be so consuming, so regimented, so intensely-focused that it feels like your own life has been put on hold and so these periods feel like a re-emergence. I even have one colleague who sends his family away for a week (somewhere nice!) then from there stops washing, grows a beard etc. until the time comes when he says he feels he can 'resurrect himself'! I have another colleague who takes to his bike in the first week or so stopping off at silent monasteries (Buddhist and Christian) along the way.
In terms of my own experience, after a few days of feeling at a sudden loose end matched equally with a distinct lack of desire to get tied up in something, I tend to start cleaning the house, exercising and reading - taking in a mix of weighty and more light-hearted material - and at some point head off abroad. This will be the pattern this year.
My first book this summer is 'Mindfulness Plain and Simple' by Oli Doyle. As regular readers of this blog will have noted (if, that is, there are regular readers!), I have a longstanding interest in aspects of Buddhist practice although my theology is still very much rooted in Christianity.
I try to quietly practice Buddhist-rooted mindfulness everyday - and ultimately I would argue the benefits come from the practice, not the philosophy. However, from time to time I do read a book on the subject to freshen up my focus and understanding. This is important particularly so this summer having left one teaching post, with all of its high and low points becoming memory, and awaiting a new teaching post in September. It is particularly important in this transition phase to avoid slipping into fearful narratives about what lies ahead. This is what Oli Doyle has to say about fear:
"Fear of the future is seen as a normal and natural part of being human, but if we pay close attention, we can see some scary, painful thoughts at the roof of that fear. Without these stories, there is no fear, but if you believe those stories, you will scare yourself stiff! Fear, which includes tension, nervousness, anxiety and worry, is seen as helpful by many people, who believe that without it we would lack motivation, becoming listless and lazy. This is partly true: fear motivates many people to do many things, it is the driver behind much of our activity. Some of us continue to go to work out of fear of losing our job, we buy our partners gifts, scared they may leave us and as a species our fear of losing economic wealth drives the continuing push for growth at all costs. I believed that much domestic violence is driven by fear, as people who use violence try to maintain control of their partners and children because they are terrified of losing them. This example shows the destructive effect of action that is motivated by fear, but because our fear of negative consequences motivates so much action, it seems logical to the mind that this fear is needed and useful. This is based on the assumption that without fear, we would not be motivated to do things, which is not the case in my experience.
What if your best, dearest friend invites you over for dinner? You know that they will completely understand if you can't come, so there is no fear. Will you go, or will you lie at home on the couch? No fear is needed for motivation here, but fear might drive you to go to that boring, dry work dinner instead of seeing your friend, worried about what the boss would say if you weren't there. In my experience working with mental health issues, in particular anxiety, it appears that fear is what keeps people from doing things they want to do. Fear of negative consequences keeps people in the house, keeps them in the same job, keeps them from talking to new people and making new friends. Fear of the future is a limiting factor, not a driver for growth and activity, and it is also absolutely unnecessary.
Without this fear, you can pursue activities not to avoid unpleasant consequences but to enjoy yourself, which fundamentally changes the character of life..."
Obviously, this does not mean the complete abandon of practically weighing up the consequences of our decisions and actions, but there is a need to avoid overly-detailed projection. All this kind of internal storytelling ultimately achieves is, apart from tiring your mind out, the habitual avoidance of adventure - and in turn, long-term frustration and regret.
Going further, one of my favourite dip-in, dip-out texts is 'Plain Living' by Catherine Whitmire, a collection of reflections from various Quakers. I recently found myself struck by the following quotes on fear:
"[W]hat is characteristic of human beings is that we do not live in the moment. We look before and after. We carry our past experience with us and project it on the future. And if the past has frightened us, we carry that with us and project it ahead... I wonder if you ever catch yourself, as I do sometimes, feeling anxious, and looking for something to be anxious about? But mostly we don't catch these fears at work. They have become habits and we are quite unaware of them...
The person who is fear-determined is always on the defensive. You will recognise these people when you meet them because either they hide from you behind a facade of pretence or formality, or else they try to dominate you. They are either submissive or aggressive.... They can never be themselves. They have lost their freedom: and losing their freedom they have lost their lives." - John Macmurray
"The Hebrew slaves had imagined that freedom from physical captivity would allow them to live as free people. But they discovered that they had brought their slavery with them. They were enslaved to fear...
The wilderness wandering, this season of repeated failure and renewed stripping, was their time of learning... In the wilderness the people recognised that their food came from God. Their drink came from God. Their very survival came from God. Only as they gave up reliance on their own power did they come to trust God's faithful leading. Paradoxically, it was this detachment from their own power which made them strong enough to enter the Promised Land." - Sandra Cronk
"Christ's major point
throughout the Sermon on the Mount
is to get rid of fears and anxieties.
It might also be said that
the substance of his mission
as a teacher was to
set us free from the slavery of our fears
"Why are ye so fearful?"
he keeps saying.
Stop your unnecessary worries.
Cut out your excessive anxieties.
It has been well said that
the most ruinously expensive
of all our emotions is fear.
It is that very emotion of fear
that has thrown our world out of joint
and brought us to this unspeakable calamity..."
- Rufus. M. Jones
During a conversation with a Unitarian Christian minister this week, he mentioned how Christianity has a psychological value in that the stories of the New Testament point to a metaphorical, rather than literal, dying to aspects of self and process of rebirth. I think if Christianity is to have a future in The West, this is one of the messages - as well as its social & communal messages - that needs to be proclaimed louder.