By Rev’d Preb Julian Ould
We are free! We live in a free society and this means that we can do our own thing. Well, not exactly, for we do have parameters, we have laws that are designed to sustain some sense of order, lest we degenerate into a form of anarchy. And if we look at the history of our world, we can see situations, where both extremes of too tight a regime on the one hand can be oppressive and often results in a revolt, like the French Revolution where the down trodden masses rose up against the decadent aristocracy. On the other hand, of situations where all sense of order and control is gone and anything goes with people degenerating to crime and violence in something like a natural disaster situation.
However, having said this, by and large we do accept the sense of a just legal system and still find a lot of scope to do our own thing. This is good, for it is only in a free state that we can truly live and be ourselves, and hence find happiness. Well no, for happiness can be difficult in total isolation and what happens around us does matter; we need to be aware of the needs of others as well, we need to belong and be a part.
In looking back over my own past, I trained within a very tight-knit group where belonging was considered essential, a religious order, and for three years lived the life of a monastic. I have to be honest, whilst I was perfectly happy, it would not have appeared to be a situation in which ‘my own thing’ really had a place, for we were governed by a very strict set of rules, and our time was fully occupied with daily duties. In fact, if I tell you our day started at 6.30 a.m. and finished at 9.30 p.m. after which we were expected to be silent until the end of breakfast the next day, you will see what I mean. And yet the ability to do our own thing and belong are compatible, for in truth whilst we all assume that total freedom to do our own thing is the key to life and happiness, it isn’t. For like it or not we all like to belong, and though at times it is good to be alone, any form of self-esteem only comes as a result of the opinions of those around us.
I’m not convinced that the life of a monastic is a particularly good example for most people, in that it is tied up with the idea of vocation, a calling from God, to be a monk, or in my case to train for the priesthood. But perhaps a better example might be something like the Royal Navy, or indeed any of the armed forces. The discipline is strong, expectations are made, and yet within this comes comradeship and belonging, a sense of self-respect and indeed a pride of position and purpose. And to a lesser or greater degree this is true of all organisations or businesses, or indeed any group or community that we are part of. If we can have a part to play, a role to fulfil, however small, then we will indeed find life and happiness, and the chances are that we might well end up doing our own thing, the thing that we are good at or enjoy anyway. Yes, I am conscious that people grumble about work, and there are those who do things that they don’t enjoy to earn a living, and this is sad, and where possible people should strive to change this. But by and large, the grumbles are really only part of doing ‘our thing’, and we are content to have something to grumble about.
We need to belong, and this was very much at the heart of the life and teaching of Jesus, suggesting that we are all children of God and part of His one heavenly family. And if we stop and think of the consequences of acting freely but without thought for others, or indeed of sometimes struggling to go it alone with a task and failing, then we would quickly see that some actions could result in misery for others and even bring retaliation or harm to ourselves. Whilst I wouldn’t pretend to know how to tackle the global problems of bitter conflict, I do know that one of the issues that we face is the lack of trust and openness and a desire to fight your own corner without thought for others.
It is good to do our own thing, and right to have perimeters that are not too restrictive, but it is essential to belong and have a part to play. The philosophy that lies behind the United Nations Council doesn’t ask us all to be the same. Rather it suggests that we should learn to accept differences, be open to alternative views of creed and culture, and importantly look to ways where we can work together for the good of all. May we grasp the importance of this and so enjoy to the full the life of freedom that we have by belonging to the family of mankind, of God and readily playing our part.