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Thursday, 28 September 2017

Welcome speech 28th September 2017

Good evening, everyone! I hope you're having a great time. If we haven’t already met, I’m Adrian, your Warden. Since this is billed as a welcome speech, allow me first to extend you a very big, warm welcome to the Hall, and let me introduce some other members of the team here with us tonight. Alice is our Hall Manager. She looks after our Hall and everything in it, as well as most of the services like catering, cleaning and security. My Senior Members are Benjy, Marta, Matthew, Rajan, and Rory.

We are all so happy that you have joined us at Connaught. It’s been an absolute pleasure to meet so many of you in the last few days and weeks. I hope we've made your time here so far comfortable, friendly, and relaxed. I hope you’ve been able to connect with lots of people at our social events and in our lovely Hall bar. And I hope that this year will give you many opportunities to forge some great friendships and happy memories that you will treasure for a lifetime.

Our life journeys so far have been incredibly diverse and different from one another, yet right now we’ve all been brought together here, to this Hall, to this community. I want our home here at Connaught to be a hotspot in central London for inclusivity, celebration, friendship, and respect. That’s where I want the next year of our shared life journey to take us. Everyone here is welcome on that journey. But I hope that you won’t just come along for the ride; I want you to be an active participant in making it happen. But how? I hear you ask…

Well, you could get yourself elected to the Hall Association. The Association has its own budget to run the Hall bar and organise many of the social events in Hall. It’s fantastic experience for developing your teamworking, organisational, and communication skills – and it looks great on your CV! That election is happening next week. Talk to me about it tonight.

The Association will also be running a facilities forum and a cultural forum this year. The facilities forum is a way for you to help us improve the physical environment of the Hall as well as services like catering and cleaning; and the cultural forum will help us to celebrate lots of international events together throughout the year. You can contribute to these without having to be elected. Look out for details next month – and again, talk to me about them tonight if you’re interested in these.

Of course, there will be countless other ways to make contributions to the community life of our Hall this year. One of the most important is just to show up and bring your own self to the events and activities that will be going on – and that’s something we can all do!

Now, it’s natural that the year ahead will throw up some challenges for us. Maybe it already has.

Change is stressful for everyone. And you’ve just changed your address, your social group, your place of study, and your whole support network of family and friends. That’s not easy – for anyone. So the fact you’re here right now deserves some real recognition.

But if any of those stresses and challenges get out of control, or if they feel too big or overwhelming, please know that it’s absolutely ok to reach out and ask for help. If there’s a problem, let us know about it. If you’re worried, upset, afraid, or unhappy, talk to us. If you have a question, ask us. That’s what we’re here for. You don’t have to face anything alone.

I’d like to share an idea that might help when you’re facing stresses challenges, and change, especially where there is a risk of conflict or misunderstanding. It might seem a strange idea to as you’re beginning this whole new chapter of learning and knowledge. But bear with me. And this is it:

“Sometimes, not knowing is better than knowing.”

I’m not the first person to have this idea! The Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote:

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

And from Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki:

“In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind, there are few.”

Let me tell you a story. Picture the scene at Heathrow and Hannah was waiting for her plane. It was delayed. So she thought, “Ok, I’ll get a packet of cookies and a book, and just sit quietly until we’re allowed to board. What else can I do?”

She went to the shop, then to the boarding gate, and put her opened bag of expensive, luxury cookies on the little table between her seat and the one next to it, and she settled into the first chapter of her book. A man came and sat next to her. And before long, she noticed that he took a cookie from the bag. She watched in stunned disbelief as he munched noisily first through one cookie, then another, and another.

Hannah was – err, not best pleased – but she didn’t know how to challenge him, so she sat getting more and more angry, and eating cookies as fast as she could so she might at least get to enjoy half of them. And, well, it really took the biscuit when the rude little man ate… wait for it… the last cookie!

Hannah was by now furious with him, and almost as angry at herself for not standing up to him. I mean, they were expensive cookies! What an awful man! “I bet he steals his own children’s pocket money!” she thought. “He mustn’t have any friends!” “Can you imagine what a horrible work colleague he must be?” She pretty much created a whole life story about the thief, based solely on her observation that he’d eaten her cookies.

But finally, the flight started boarding. She reached into her bag to pull out her boarding pass and what fell out of her bag but… her expensive, luxury cookies. The ones she had been eating whilst reading her book and hating on the man next to her – belonged to the man the whole time!

So what went wrong here?

Hannah was very attached to her cookies and to her view that the man was stealing from her. Because she felt so certain of this mistaken belief, she wasn’t open to understanding the truth. In her mind, the only possibility was that the man was eating her cookies. And that delusion filled her with anger and resentment, and meant that she felt horrible for the whole time she was waiting for her plane.

Has it ever happened to you, that you had a great long argument with someone, where you were fiercely stating one set of facts, and the other person just as fiercely stating a different, contradictory set of facts? One of you – or maybe even both of you – were wrong. But of course, during the conflict, you both thought you were right. Otherwise you wouldn’t bother having the argument.

In fact, any time we find ourselves disagreeing with someone, or experiencing conflict with someone, by definition there must be at least two different ways of looking at that situation. Of course, we like to believe that our own way of seeing things and our own way of living is the right way. So we invest a lot of emotional energy, and even a sense of our own identity, in promoting and defending our way, all the time missing out on opportunities to understand – to really understand – the opinions and experiences of others. In this way, we are constantly limiting our own horizons. 

Just like Hannah, we can all become very attached to our own beliefs and opinions. And just like Hannah, sometimes we are the one has made up a complete story about another person… that is totally wrong!

How many people here in Hall have you already labelled as “library guy”, or “mean girl”, or “that guy who’s always getting wasted”? And imagined a whole personality for them based on that one bit of information – that could be wrong anyway?

But there’s another side to this, as well.

It becomes exhausting when we feel like we always have to know what to do, what to say, how to behave, or how to approach every obstacle. We can feel under so much pressure to somehow get it right all the time. Yet the truth is, many times, we don’t know what’s best or what’s right – and yet we spend so much energy trying to convince … ourselves and others that we’ve got it all together – that we’re very grown up and we’ve got it all worked out – and that we know what we’re doing! Wouldn’t it be so much easier if sometimes we could just say, “I don’t know”… opening the way, perhaps, for someone else to teach us?

So can we all, today, commit maybe: To softening the edges what we think we know – just a little bit? To saying “I don’t know” – just a little more often? Especially when we sense feelings like anger, hurt, fear, or disconnection? To being just a little more open to the possibility that our view might sometimes be wrong? That the stories we’ve told ourselves are really just stories? And to allow ourselves just a little more warm and genuine curiosity - about the world around us, and the people we share it with – in the hope that we might one day see things and people as they really are?

I’m going to finish with one final quote and then a toast. The attribution of this quote is uncertain, though it’s most commonly ascribed to Mark Twain:

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Connaught this year is going to be a welcoming, supportive, and friendly home for us all here. And perhaps – just perhaps – living in this community, our hearts and minds will be opened to new people, new experiences, and new ways of seeing.

So let’s raise our glasses… To community, to curiosity, and to Connaught!