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Keep Calm and Carry On

I highlighted before half term the importance of trying to keep everything in its proper context and not to catastrophize unnecessarily. This is obviously not a new phenomenon, but it always seems to make us feel better if we think we have found previously untapped wisdom.

One example that comes to mind is the now ubiquitous request to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.  Originally produced as a government information poster at the outbreak of the Second World War in response to the anticipated threat from bombing raids, it was not actually widely used during the war and it fell into anonymity until about twenty years ago when it was rediscovered in a bookshop in Alnwick in Northumberland.

I have a copy of the poster hanging behind the desk in my office.  It was given to me when I first became a head in 2008, and from what I remember it was still unusual back then.  Now, of course, the slogan is everywhere and it seems to show no sign of losing its popularity.  It may therefore look a bit cliched, but at least I know that this was a rare occasion when I was an early adopter of something bigger.

If nothing else, I like it because it chimes with my view of the world, developed over time of course, that life is essentially a series of problems that need to be engaged with and tackled as methodically, logically and in as level-headed a way as possible.  When I was younger, I probably thought there was an end point that could be reached through professional and personal success, allowing life’s challenges to be conquered and overcome, resulting in endless leisure and relaxation.  How splendidly naïve I was!

If you have read or seen ‘The History Boys’ by Alan Bennett, you may be familiar with a similar idea.  During a mock interview for an Oxford college, one of the teachers asks the least able of the prospective scholars, ‘What is history?’  I’ll have to leave out the inappropriate expletive in the actual answer, but the boy replies, ‘It’s just one thing after another’, thereby linking history and life inextricably, as usual.

The challenge for us is how we cope with the problems and how we respond, both to success and, more often, to failure.  At a recent conference, I learned more about some of the biological factors that affect us in our day to day lives.  When we are calm, we are in a state of body and mind known as homeostasis, an even equilibrium.  When we are subjected to a physical or psychological factor that disturbs this homeostasis, which is called a stressor, we produce a biological response as an adaptation, which not surprisingly is called stress. 

Urban life is a significant cause of stress, with all its pollutions through noise, air and light, and the added challenges of travelling around in a busy environment often cause symptoms of prolonged stress such as chronic tiredness.  In normal circumstances, stress is a communication tool between us and our environment, and it is both natural and a good thing.  Prolonged stress outside homeostasis is what causes harm.

We are largely aware of what we can do to help ourselves, though we too often struggle to find the time or the will.  Breathing properly and deeply can help, as can standing up and moving about.  Doing yoga and other exercise is always a good idea, as is trying to eat and drink more healthily.  If we can develop our skills of meditation, we can become more able to focus on the present rather than upsetting our balance by ruminating on negative ideas.

Above all, the speaker advised, we need to get back to nature and go outdoors.  Long walks, a deeper engagement with our natural environment and, above all, spending time in forests are all helpful in maintaining our homeostasis.  She reminded a hall full of headteachers in a stuffy conference room with no natural light that we are all animals and we need to be outside.  Unless, of course, the bombs are falling, in which case we need to keep calm and carry on!

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