Soldiers, Soup and Sandy Row: Challenging a fixed mindset…

The anecdotal examples given here are intended to act as blunt signifiers, and can hopefully trigger a much broader conversation on identity and growth mindsets – concepts that are very much intertwined and blurred together, positively, across the community already

The American psychologist Carol Dweck is renowned for her research on mindset theories, and her work is widely referred to in the education sector. The general idea is that people who welcome challenging situations, who embrace their mistakes and value opportunities to learn, can be said to have a growth mindset. Conversely, those who believe that their capacity for change is limited, and set in stone, may be said to hold on to a fixed mindset.

Walking with my late grandfather down the back lane, after Sunday Mass, is a favourite childhood memory. He was the gentlest soul you could ever meet and didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body. Moving through fields full of wild rushes, Granda and I would always pass this old wreck of a car lying in a ditch. The rust bucket provided shelter from the elements when he was out farming.

One day though, the windows had been smashed. Destroyed. A bitter wind would tear through the old vehicle from now on. ‘It was the soldiers,’ my devastated Granda told me. ‘They walk down here, and they wreck the gates and smash the windows.’ It was a fact that the army had, accidentally or otherwise, damaged gates and fences in the past.

I remember as well, with mum working, sick days off from primary school spent at a neighbour’s house. Sniffling on the sofa one day, with a blanket and hot-water bottle, there came a sudden rat-a-tat-tat on the window. Soldiers! ‘Them boys love windows,’ I thought.

One waved at me and I ducked for cover, praying for invisibility. The squaddies laughed loudly. Fifteen minutes later I was scurrying outside, having been asked by my neighbour to help carry tea and sandwiches to the army men, who were huddled in the big red corrugated shade.

They ate and drank with kind and courteous grace. I kept watching them. I was still intimidated. Yet, I remember thinking: ‘These fellows seem…kind of human? Kind of… normal?’

In 2001, at the time of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, a few farms near our place became infected. A bit of a media frenzy developed, and the police put up cordons. At my auntie’s down the road, we were marched out the door with flasks of soup and Viscount biscuits to the officers in the field. Were they the RUC back then? The horror.

Are we cursed at birth and hoist with the petards of our history? Local geographies play their part, too. Are we therefore denied the opportunity to grow, to expand our mindsets because of the narrow parameters of identity we find ourselves constrained by?

Years later, as a greenhorn undergraduate, I signed up to assist an older anthropology student, who was carrying out PhD research into the politics of memorialisation in post-conflict Northern Ireland.

Tasty. I wondered what lay ahead.

Taking those first steps down Sandy Row, I was up to high doh. Carrying my survey questions and pre-rehearsed introduction, I knocked on a random door. A gentleman answered and I started stammering. He stared coolly.

‘Son…son. Relax yourself, please. How can I help you?’ We spoke for nearly twenty minutes, and the conversation was warm enough. At one stage he became very keen to express his anger at ‘the terrorists in government up on the hill,’ while I, now relaxed and at ease, was still full of the ‘Yes, yes, absolutely, oh I know!’ type of thing. I left, feeling mild shame at my earlier panic. But relief as well.

The PhD student was from Rome, and she’d thrown herself straight into the local culture. She would tell me the craic she’d had at Eleventh Night bonfires the previous year, and how she was warmly welcomed, respected and invited to drink. ‘You should join me at a bonfire later this summer,’ she offered. I politely agreed, but knew I wouldn’t: I felt she’d be somehow safer, with her academic credentials; whilst I, a Holylands culchie – a mere cub – didn’t feel brave enough. Perhaps I should have gone. But maybe it was for the best.

No matter what side of the house you’re from, how would you rate your own mindset? Specifically towards people, institutions, traditions, or acts of memorialisation (controversial or otherwise).  If it’s firmly fixed in place, how on earth will genuine reconciliation – as Brian asked us – ever be possible?

A few weeks later, I got a bus from the country into the Europa in Belfast. Waiting for a connection, there was still an hour to kill. It so happened that it was The Twelfth.

I was curious, excited. A voyeur. I felt a thrilling, illogical sense of danger. This was big bad Belfast on the big bad day, after all.

Poking my head out of the Great Northern Mall, the mighty sound of the Lambeg boomed through my stomach from its source up in Shaftesbury Square, followed by the cascade of wooden drumsticks tackling a sea of snares. What a sound. Raw and invasive. The guttural beauty crawled inside me and settled, uncertain of why it was there. This was far better than Paul Clark’s UTV show “The Twelfth” (which my mummy watches every year). I swiftly retreated from my position as accidental tourist, and headed back towards the neutral safety of the bus station.


This post may run the risk of being labelled as a flow of idealistic (ignorant?), self-indulgent and naïve drivel. Fair enough. But in my relatively limited life experience, this is how I’ve encountered challenges to my fixed mindset – hopefully I’ve taken the opportunity to grow, even just a bit.

And Granda, I’m sorry… I broke those windows.

I’ve regretted it ever since.

Photo by namair is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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