This week Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, reflects on wearing face coverings.
This week Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, reflects on our wellbeing as we think about returning to work.
A colleague recently told me that he felt both stressed and deflated with the current demands of home life and the frustrations at work. Nothing seemed to be falling into place and there was very little sense of belonging to any supportive community. As I tried to offer some consoling words, I began to think about what kind of staff and student communities we should be creating when we all return in September.
As well as the focus on delivery of services to allow for flexible ways of working across teaching and research, universities should also prioritise the physical and emotional environment they create. The very purpose of a university is that it remains a place where one imagines alternative ways of being, where one fosters new intellectual horizons and friendships. So often the joys of learning come from the joys of our relationships, whether between colleagues or between staff and students. They have their own chemistry and can often provide the solace we need when feeling alone or anxious.
As we respond to the challenges of the coming months, it’s important that we give due attention to the emotional wellbeing of all who make up the university. Whether it’s in person, online or hybrid, teaching and research will continue because that is what universities do; we will for the most part overcome the technological hurdles. But we aren’t always aware of other people’s struggles and often reluctant to confess our own. This is why the emotional support we both ask for and are able to give to others is what will help us flourish as a place of community and integrity in the years to come.
Photography: Sam Sills
This week Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, reflects on what cover image she will choose for her latest book.
Other than the initial topic, for me, the best stage of writing a book is when you are asked to decide on a suitable cover. Most academics know that even at that point, the manuscript is still a few months away from actual publication but the excitement is still palpable. For the last few days, I’ve been thinking about a cover for my own forthcoming book on the theme of human struggle in Christian and Islamic traditions. But despite doing several online searches into museums and art galleries, I haven’t had much success in finding an image that really fits.
Maybe the art on the cover isn’t as significant as the words on the pages but a good cover can encapsulate the very essence of a book, an entire story in a single image. At a time when so much of what we consume is done online, visuals and creativity matter even more. Celebrity artists and writers are inviting children and adults to send in art work as well as illustrations for books. Adults are being encouraged to write poetry, draw and paint not only because creativity leads to greater positivity but because art in all its form is about sharing some part of our lives. Most of us want to share through our work and just now, the online world is the medium through which we can step out of our solitude and tell a part of our story in words or pictures.
I’m hopeful that I will find the right image, one which is original, tells the purpose of the book and even fills in those gaps in the text where words are simply not enough.
Photography: Sam Sills
This week Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, reflects on our way out of lockdown and how old routines will be changed.
As the lockdown starts to gradually lift in various parts of the UK, albeit with restrictions, many of us are wondering what we will do first with our new freedom. As someone who often worked from home even before the current situation, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve missed and want to return to from my former routine.
These last few weeks, I’ve been lucky to have most of my family with me at home. But I haven’t been able to see my eldest son who lives and works in London. I miss the gym but not shopping or even travel that much. I miss coffee and lunch with colleagues although I still haven’t joined them for the weekly staff social on Microsoft Teams! I’ve kept up with online marking and giving feedback to my postgraduate students by phone or email. I even bought myself a new desk to complete old writing deadlines and find inspiration for new projects; productivity is a way of feeling normal.
My new routine sounds simpler and less active, but maybe I’m not being honest with myself. Perhaps the real issue is that in my mind this seismic societal shift, while temporary, is still too daunting. We need the comfort of feeling that we are connected to the outside world, to other people however much we tell ourselves we can work alone or remotely. The online world is a lifeline but for most of us, it’s not a substitute for the beauty and complexity of our physical interactions. Whatever our future routines, whatever else we can do without, we should all emerge with a greater appreciation of what we get from seeing family, friends and colleagues.
Photography: Sam Sills
This week Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, reflects on the power of food and hospitality.
This weekend I celebrated Eid, the day which marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. It was the first time in 29 years of living in Scotland, that I didn’t have friends and relatives round at home for the traditional mid-morning brunch. My eldest son also was unable to travel up from London because of the current Covid-19 restrictions so all in all, the day felt a little flat despite the efforts we still made as a family.
I was brought up in a home where hospitality was central to the way we lived. My mother loved cooking and hosting and as girls, we learnt to cook very early on. She always said: “it’s better to have guests than be a guest.” This could of course be very demanding but for her, hospitality was what made home. In later life I began to appreciate the creative and therapeutic power of cooking. Food brings families and conversations together, preparing a meal helps children to learn skills far beyond the culinary, and perhaps most importantly, it seems to me, there is nothing as simple yet as profound as feeding others.
Under the current lockdown, people are cooking and baking more as families. But while food may be central to hospitality, hospitality is far more than food; it’s an attitude to life itself helping to nurture patience and the art of being together. Even though many of us are missing distant family at important occasions, there are always new people near us with whom we can make deeper connections. It’s in this reaching out and breaking down barriers, that hospitality can be both personally and socially transformative.
This week Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, reflects on our current sense of community and how it will grow and change in the future.
A couple of weeks ago I went out for my daily walk. It happened to be a Thursday evening just before 8.00pm and I’d forgotten that this was the weekly clap for our carers hour. As a few people came out for an event which has assumed the status of a national ritual, I carried on walking. Suddenly a woman shouted: “you should clap as you walk.” She was smiling but her terse tone made me feel that clapping was no longer just a voluntary show of gratitude but a public duty now.
For many, the weekly applause creates a genuine sense of coming together in a time of crisis, but I think as a society we struggle with how to understand human suffering, how to connect both the sense of loss and hope which together give weight and meaning to our lives. Yet it’s this weighing up of struggle, suffering and hope that produce the best narratives of human existence, often so poignantly reflected in the disciplines so many of us study and teach – literature, theology, philosophy and art.
Our current crisis means that community amidst separation is the narrative of the day. For now, most of us are less indifferent to the destiny of others, we are more empathetic towards those taking risks every day, and we remain grateful. But for how long will this renewed sense of community and generosity remain? Once this struggle has passed, maybe a gentler and kinder future for all could be based on nurturing gratitude as a way of life rather than expressing it as a momentary, albeit well intentioned thank you.
Photography: Sam Sills
This week Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, reflects on the importance of asking for help.
I received some good news last week – my current manuscript on human struggle, cleared the review process and is now officially `in press;’ its such a great feeling but on this occasion, there’s an overwhelming sense of relief more than anything else. Because with this book I know I should have asked colleagues for help right from the beginning, colleagues who had greater expertise in the area. Their advice would have pointed me in the right direction at the start of the project and helped me avoid some of the issues subsequently raised.
Many of us fail to ask for help because we think it’s a sign of weakness or inability. But I’ve realised over the last few months that asking for help requires courage, integrity and being honest with yourself. It’s about facing a challenge, knowing your potential but also your limits and still wanting to do and be more. There’s never any shame in asking for help.
Right now, we’re all facing one of the most difficult times of our lives just now. None of us can escape or hide from the effects of the Covid-19 crisis which continues to take its toll on peoples lives and their futures. But while some are coping better than others, it’s important to let people know when we need help and when we can give help. Currently, our dominant contexts are our home and family, but the university too is our community. And in these challenging times, it’s both kind and wise to remember that despite the pressures and the uncertainties, we can all help each other to flourish.
Photography: Sam Sills
This week Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, reflects on our new backdrops and how they’re bringing us closer together.
As more and more people are doing TV broadcasts from their homes, it’s now common to see celebrities, politicians, academics and journalists speak to the nation from the room and backdrop of their choice. Suddenly we’re getting a glimpse into other people’s houses, their décor, their awards and trophies, their personal clutter, and of course their groaning bookshelves. Everyone is presenting an image of themselves through these backgrounds, trying to achieve the right level of gravitas without appearing pretentious. Books are everywhere although so far, I haven’t seen any of my books in anyone’s book case!
This new and necessary way of interviewing gives us more of an insight into a person than simply their professional role. Seeing how people react when their children accidentally walk into the room, or what’s drying on their radiators, we can see our own lives reflected in the messy and often haphazard nature of home as people try to work. Home doesn’t need to be perfect or always ready. It’s a reflection of all that’s going on in our lives, both a charged and a relaxed environment, a space which can be both demanding and comforting at the same time.
As we manage our work over the next few weeks and months, let’s use this time to think deeper, to stretch our imagination about the possibilities of our work. Yes, so much is uncertain and not every day can be productive. But that’s okay; life is both struggle and hope. Whatever external image we’re all presenting to the outside world, it’s our inner world which matters more. And sometimes true inspiration comes only when we learn to be kinder to ourselves.
This week Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, reflects on what time means to us in this new normal.
The current lockdown is making me think more about how I’m spending my days, even the nature of time. For centuries the philosophical and scientific explanation of time has remained somewhat of an enigma, despite the various physical models which explain the temporal structure of the world. Aristotle, Einstein, Newton, St Augustine, spacetime and clocks have all tried to explain both the illusory and real in how we understand time.
Modernity meant choice and freedom to move around, but it also tied us to the clock. Our lives became schedules with a list of commitments and deadlines to our family, friends and work colleagues. But today under lockdown, with much of our lives indoors, time feels quite different. Despite the demands of domestic and professional work, there’s a feeling of being suspended in time, waiting for the past to return or the future to start. The uncertainty surrounding our futures has made many of us realise that time is also emotion and that right now, we’re unsure what to feel.
Even though we humans aren’t born with an innate sense of time, we learn to measure it as experiences and events, as memory and change, all of which fill our senses. Our order of events has changed and I’ve stopped turning the pages of my diary because I’m measuring my days in new ways. Not quite with the routine of coffee spoons as the speaker in T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but with a new hope for future possibilities. We cannot let ourselves be overwhelmed by what we have lost but carry on with renewed strength and gratitude that there are so many good things still to happen.
This week Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, reflects on empathy.
I completed and submitted a grant application last week. A small personal achievement at a time of such strange paradox. On the one hand, projects and grants seem far less important, almost a luxury, when so many around the world are dying, the months ahead remain uncertain and no-one knows how and when we will return to our workplaces. And yet, I’m also conscious that having a future goal, some creative resilience, is necessary both professionally and for our mental and emotional energy.
Today, when many are struggling to live and work under lockdown constraints, thousands of others are also giving up their time to volunteer in all manner of ingenious and compassionate ways. People are discovering new purpose, whether it’s more family time, helping in their neighbourhoods or raising money for good causes by taking on different challenges. The words of Ralph Waldo Emerson come to mind, `The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.’
Perhaps all we can do at the moment is to find new resilience, new ways of living well with ourselves and with others; it is a test of our empathy. Empathy cannot heal everything but it can console and stretch our imagination. Empathy binds us to one another through ordinary and radical acts of kindness, helping us to strive for a more hopeful future for all. Its power is largely unspoken but the moral force of empathy lies at the heart of what it is to be human.
This week Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, reflects on stillness and quiet.
Like many of us finding ways to get fresh air safely, I’ve been going for regular walks on my own. I’m lucky to live next to a golf course and am surrounded by fields and farmland which makes walking a real pleasure in the beautiful spring sunshine. Yet I’ve also noticed how still everything seems. Even though I can hear the dawn chorus far more clearly and the voices of the early morning dog walkers in the distance, as the day goes on, a quiet seems to settle around me.
A few days ago, on my walk, I observed the calm of the grazing farm animals, the poignant peace of a small graveyard and the quiet ripple on the canal waters. It seemed like all this stillness was simply concealing our current human anxieties. But as I walked I realized this was not stillness, it was the rhythm and energy of the natural world that I hardly noticed any longer. We humans have made our lives all about movement, about distraction and external stimulus, where we live with noise all around us. Today we are missing the noise of daily life, a noise which we deem as normal. Yet, even as I hope and pray that we survive this global pandemic and that we are able to return to some aspects of our former lives, something in me has changed. There is a joy to desiring less, there is a power to stillness and maybe reconnecting ourselves to something other than the material, may eventually create a different but gentler normal.