Ever since I was a young boy I recall digging holes in the sand. Any beach, any country, and any time of the year – I would dig holes. Sometimes they were no deeper than my wrist. Others could fit my entire body. I once dug a hole so deep that both my brother and sister could fit in it standing up. I love digging holes but until recently I’d never stop to wonder why – why do I dig holes in the sand?Recently, on a beach in Spain I noticed my partner lying sleeping, my father was off looking around the local town and my mum sat reading. I was digging a hole. I was digging this particular hole as I had forgotten to bring my holiday book to the beach: Sapiens, a brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. His basic premise is we have learned to live as humans by constructing a series of interrelated myths that allow us to make socio-political-cultural changes. It’s a mind blowing and thought-provoking read – I would encourage you search it out.
The author reinforces the idea that biologically humans haven’t really evolved that much in comparison to the rest of evolution. We hold on to things we were doing 1000’s of years ago but trying to live in a complex and unfamiliar world. It was this thought that led me to wonder why I was digging a hole on a beach in Spain.
There isn’t really a social or cultural myth that says I will get pleasure from digging holes. Some initial research (asking friends) suggests it could be my need to find shelter, cooler temperatures, connect to nature or forage for food. I’m not sure if I’ll ever find the definitive answer (there probably isn’t one) but that isn’t the point. We don’t stop an enquiry or learning experience if there isn’t an answer or I might not get it right.
I also believe the question at the heart of my digging enquiry is: Why do I do what I do? This question is crucial to help humans progress and is a genuine enquiry which I can start to follow. I know who I am because of my experiences, knowledge, family and background. But what if we dig deeper – what has made us, us. Perhaps if we all thought about that a bit more we would start to see the world in a different light – we could see what’s going wrong. It’s not about the hole in the sand – it’s about why my mind and body make me do the things I do on a subconscious level.
My mentor and friend Matthew Sowerby recently introduced me to the concept of ‘Habitus’. He defines it as like habitat – but without the confusion of wild animals’ living conditions and 1970s knock-off copies of Swedish design classics. Folklore, unwritten rules, unspoken confluence – which aggregate to affect (perhaps more importantly – limit) practice. It’s one of Bourdieu’s thinking tools – a critical couplet: habitus/practice. Partick has a habitus. So does Dennistoun, Morningside, the middle-classes, compulsory secondary education, a primary school.
The idea of habitus is crucial in helping us understand why we do what we do – I see it as an awakening of the senses to allow us to see what is truly there. If we are attentive to the many habitus we populate we should begin to challenge and question the folklore and myths that inhabit them. The deeper we dig and more attentive we become the more we gather knowledge about the external factors that govern our lives.
The public sector has interesting habitus – it’s a haven for myth and folklore. I’m not suggesting all myths are bad – some are vital. However, to firstly name them and then educate ourselves in why they exist is essential if we are to establish new and progressive ones.
My other mentor and friend Karen Lawson recently floated the idea of a fire starter festival for the public sector in Scotland. There was something about fire and digging holes that connected as they seemed to be hang-ups from our hunter-gather ancestors.
We are drawn to fire because our minds and bodies are leading us to safety. This is ridiculous. We live in houses that have radiators, work in offices with central heating and wear expensive clothes that keep out the cold. We have evolved not to rely on fire but we are still drawn to it. We take heat for granted – has that made us soft and frightened to travel into the wilderness? We wouldn’t be here if our ancestors hadn’t started wandering into the dark. Fire enabled that to happen. So fire is what is needed to find new habitats for future exploration.
A Head Teacher I work with speaks a lot about ensuring the campfires in the wilderness continue to burn brightly. She is referring to those schools that stay true to the values of learning and teaching. The idea of fire or campfire is littered with beautiful metaphors that draw you into a world of hunter gathers. If, as my holiday book argues, we are able to succeed by possessing the ability to create new myths that foster change we must then accept everything is in flux. If we appreciate that much of what we engage with is myth, the more likely we are to be able to challenge the status quo and create new myths. Our challenge therefore is to create new myths which demonstrate that change is an exciting and inevitable aspect of life.
I would connect myth and folklore to the mystical world of the storyteller. We associate storytellers with campfires. Those who can tell the best story (Paul Collard, David Cameron, David Price) are the international storytellers. They travel the world and throw matches into the wind. Sometimes they are caught and sometimes they burn brightly then fade out. The people who catch the matches and find kindling are the real fire starters. For it is the bespoke approach that will ensure camp fires turn into villages which in turn become towns and then the cities of the future. We need a new empire – one built on the minds of the people that inhabit it.
Maybe, as my partner suggested, I dig holes because I get bored easily. Maybe I dig holes because somewhere in my DNA my hands were built for moving earth. Maybe I dig holes because I’m eternally curious about finding pirates treasure. Maybe I just enjoy the experience of making my mark on where I’ve been. Perhaps I should turn my attention to building more fires.