There’s a fine line between endings and new beginnings

Reflections on the community I just can’t quit

Nour Sidawi
Leaving well


Caption: “You often feel tired, not because you’ve done too much but because you’ve done too little of what sparks a light in you.” — Alexander den Heijer. Image by feastsandfables.

Hello dear reader,

I’m sharing some reflections on the process of closing a significant chapter of my life. It is a change that often gets overlooked. It is also part of the closure journey for me.

This is my journey, and everyone else’s endings will look different to this. I am telling a story of closure and sharing it in the spirit of learning and sensemaking in the open. I’m talking about it in the hope that others feel they can do the same.

So, here goes.

Honouring the past to understand its influence on the present

I had intended to write this blog post in the two-week break after stepping down from my position in the Ministry of Defence. But that date came, and I still felt broken and exhausted. So, I left it. Two more weeks passed. Still, the blank page remained.

I’ve been stuck for words.

I have reflected on why it has taken me so long to put the ending process under a microscope, why the things I ignored the most were the ones that needed the closest attention. I’m still getting to grips with and understanding my time there. Endings and loss are a necessary part of organisational change making and transformation. But it’s the part I overlooked in my own journey.

Until I stopped work in December 2019, I don’t think I realised how profoundly exhausted I was. I’d been in the department for five years. It was a pretty punishing few years personally and professionally. I juggled work with care responsibilities (and wrote about it here). I felt a huge weight of responsibility for looking after the team, navigating terrible situations, and doing what we could, while also coming to terms with the fact that our best would never be enough.

I took two weeks off before I started my new job in the Ministry of Justice.

Then the pandemic hit.

And I kept going.

This is place where I felt driven out

“The future won’t be a new big, tower of power — but well-trodden paths from house to house” — Raimon Panikkar

Several years down the line I am no closer to articulating my own story and narrative about leaving. There are multiple narratives at play — one that was full of frustration and another that was full of intention. I have shied away from both. In an intensely normative, conformist, and conservative organisation, I am not the first change maker to leave — and I will not be the last. I fell out of the right relationship with my work at the Ministry of Defence and leaving was my way of purposefully looking after myself.

So, what changed? Well, I went to a session recently about culture inquiries in the national security community, which I was being trained to support and undertake. A culture inquiry is a process that arises when ‘the way things are done’ is brought into question. It is the immersive practice of getting close to and talking to people, as they participate in both formal and informal aspects of organisational life. There’s a remarkable complexity to this work — the actual messy, lived experience of being part of a group of imperfect human beings venturing on a journey into the unknown.

The culture inquiry, in a physical space away from my own work, disrupted my usual day-to-day patterns and allowed me to see things more clearly. By participating in one, I noticed what was going on. It allowed me to confront things that were within me, that I had long since deeply buried. I’ve reflected on the things I shared and left unspoken during the session. It’s not easy to face up to how things have been and open up to the vulnerability of how things could be. You see, I participated in the culture inquiry to change it — but it also changed me back. Without it, I would not have written this.

This is the place where I was needed, but not wanted

Caption: “Too much disruption and agitation is not good. Our cultures and behaviours don’t tolerate that. You become ‘that’ voice. People feel insecure about it. Being a change agent is exhausting and most leave. So maybe it’s culture and behaviour that need to move with the times.” by @thepagey

For starters, the job was not easy, it was probably the most challenging and infuriating of my career so far. I was afraid of being the disruptor. But I did it anyway. If government delivery is slow, then making change in the Ministry of Defence was akin to trying to get super tanker to change direction. The effort of trying to get that change to happen made some of those early years very frustrating. That’s how it was, surrounded by people who didn’t think things needed to change, or hoped they would magically change (even though change is a constant reality).

And this work was a jumbled, busy mess — it was not creating healthy or sustainable patterns for me. Throwing myself actively into this required energy and bravery, which was harder to summon with every passing day. I lost my belief that things could change for the better — and with it my perspective, joy, and confidence. This made me doubtful I could ever pull off the radical stuff. I couldn’t change the system, so instead I had to adapt, and adapt, and adapt, against my better judgement. It created a storm in my soul.

During those years, I had been looked over, demeaned, talked over, dismissed, reported for not ‘staying in my lane,’ labelled as a ‘troublemaker,’ discouraged from reporting problems, undermined, battled the misogyny throughout the organisation, and much more. It’s not just the ‘big’ incidents, it’s the wearing away that the everyday ones caused, too. It was never just ‘banter,’ not when I felt humiliated, targeted, or broken. That’s bullying. I was not built for this, and it’s not just me. I didn’t feel the system had space for someone like me, which was saying, “whatever you do, don’t ever dare to be different…”

I’ve also been publicly silent. I have often wondered why. The Ministry of Defence was a second family to me. It gave me more than a career — it became a reference point for my entire working life, a place to call home. Maybe I did not want the negative emotions I held to cloud, impact, or distract from the deep passion I have for the community I was choosing to step away from.

This is the place I chose to leave

I stayed in toxic environments for longer than I should have. Like others, I ran for fumes for months and months. I kept banking on the community because it was the only one I knew, even when I felt more at odds with it than part of it. I stayed in the job long enough for it to leave scars. But this felt unsustainable: unsustainable for my mental and physical health, but also for my longer-term aspiration to be of service. Ultimately, it needed someone to help pave the way for others — and it was heart wrenching to realise that person would not be me.

The right time to leave never really came. I didn’t know when to consider or recognise when the ‘end’ was in sight. I loved my job. I loved what I did. I loved my colleagues. But I could not stay. I often wish someone had said, “You aren’t failing, you’re being failed, Nour. It’s time to leave.” I often wish I had found the courage to reply, “I’ve got nothing left to give.”

After ten months of agonising, I resigned. For everything I valued and wanted to be, both presently and in the future, I made the decision to leave. The relief was absent, the sadness lingering, and the change daunting. My confidence was the lowest it had been in years. I felt drained, defeated even. I was leaving without feeling that I had said all I needed to, offered all I could do, or owned my own narrative about the choice to leave. Maybe there will always be a lingering feeling, that there remain things unfinished in my own story.

In the end, I left as quietly as I had arrived five years earlier. Torrential rain followed as I sat in the middle of an empty train carriage on a dark, stormy night mid-winter, on my final journey home, and cried.

The beginning of the next chapter

Caption: “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamp of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach…. The world you deserve can be won. It exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.” — Ayn Rand (thank you Jo Mortimer!). Credit: quotefancy

Two years, three months, and fifteen days have passed since my departure. It has taken years to mend my shattered confidence. The experiences continued to take their toll on me in unexpected ways, long after I left. Defence, and the national security environment, took a bit of my heart, soul, and spirit.

A lot of time and therapy passed before I understood that my exhaustion was not a failure of my capacity, but a structural failure to support my capacity. There is an emotional cost to change making, to do the work and to keep choosing it. It takes a toll and it’s easy to lose yourself along the way. I now know I was doing the best I could with the knowledge and resources I had at the time. And I am now more conscious about where I want to put my time and energy and that where I stand to do the work is a choice.

Leaving has been a bereavement. It has also been a liberation. It has taken a while to understand why I had to make the change, and longer still to make peace with it. I will always feel some guilt or regret in leaving, a sinking feeling that I am letting the community down by not continuing to fight for a better outcome generations from now. Perhaps it is why I walked towards the culture inquiry, and other ongoing work, to help bring the national security community to a healthier state.

There is a fine line between endings and new beginnings. Sometimes, they are indistinguishable, part of a continuum. I am thriving at the Ministry of Justice. It has been a place to heal (despite the world being permanently on fire). Although it is not a place I call home, I have recalled my sense of self there, taking steps to heal and recover. I feel grounded, content, and more connected. I’ve learned to find joy in the small things everyday. I’ve devoured books, often having two or three on the go at once (you can read more here). I’ve been doing lots of photography, mostly to/from frequent trips to the bakery. Now, when I take time off, I don’t feel the need to fill it with doing things constantly.

And I’m struck by how different the world looks from here.

I’m always interested to hear people’s reflections. What resonates most with you? What’s different to your own experience of ending roles?

Editors note: Amended 23 April 2022 to add back sentences lost in editing and correct spelling/grammar mistakes.



Nour Sidawi
Leaving well

Reflecting on the complexity of systems and making change in government @UKCivilService . Part of @OneTeamGov