Tour of the Long Gallery at Althorp with Ashoka Fellows and staff and Earl Spencer
A Ritual to Read to Each Other, by William Stafford, (from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1998 by William Stafford.) is a poem that often features in our organisational thinking time at The Reader. Last week I had the pleasure of reading it with some of my Ashoka colleagues at the Fellows Annual Retreat.
I sat down at a table in the back hall of Althorp (hospitality kindly donated by Ashoka Fellow Karen Spencer, Founder of Whole Child international) with Ruth Ibegbuna, Founder of Reclaim, Alexander Mclean, Founder of African Prisons Project and Anil Patil Founder of Carers Worldwide, to read this poem and talk about working in teams at work. We talked about the lines at the beginning of the poem:
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star
The idea of a pattern that others made prevailing in the world is familiar one to social entrepreneurs – all my shared reading colleagues on this occasion were people who have created something powerful by rejecting established patterns on a large scale.
We spoke about the sense that those patterns keep on coming despite your best endeavours – in the ways in which we habitually treat each other; how, for example, HR legislation works and must be followed, how organisational structures so often seem to require hierarchy – often against one’s better instincts. For leaders in changemaker organisations there is a constant need to question: are we doing this as we want to do it, or are we following ‘the wrong god’ now? Missing your star is easy to see after the event, but hard when you are in the thick of the journey and the sky is full above you…
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
We spoke a little about the way in which ‘small betrayals’ may occur in daily working life – and asked also how can a betrayal be small? It’s such a big thing to get wrong! But in the privacy of your own mind such betrayals may occur almost unnoticed. Do you let go of something you believe in for reasons of expediency? Out of exhaustion? Because of some policy you must adopt or adhere to? The sequence – of our connectedness – is ‘fragile’ the poem tells us. That’s hard to remember in the daily demand of running an organisation or campaign when so many other demands press and pull. Whatever the reasons, suddenly one’s adulthood can snap and result in the emergence of childish behaviour in self or others, ‘storming out to play’, and then you have a broken situation on your hands… We talked about what happened when we had to be diligent business people in difficult human situations.
Everyone seemed struck by the last stanza:
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
It’s so easy to drift back to metaphorical sleep in ordinary life, not to notice that you are merely following patterns others have made. Sometimes those patterns are useful, but oftentimes they are merely expedient and sometimes deeply limiting. We’re all working long hours in order to change the patterns, and often on a large canvas it’s hard to switch between big movements and tiny ones, to regulate very closely the smallest movements (the poem’s elephants holding on to each other trunk to tail, and the small veering off course – the breaking line – which means they get absolutely lost.)
The darkness around us is indeed deep. I felt moved to sit reading and talking with these people who have changed the pattern and continue to change the patterns that others have made. We talked about the details of reality that seem small in the big picture, but actually make up much of our daily life. The poem gave us a small clear space in which to meet each other and to think about specific work situations together. Afterwards, Ruth told me that before Reclaim, she had been an English teacher! And I said, take reading to work, fellows.