By Gerald K. Hibbert.

Source: Hibbert, Gerald K., ed. Studies in Quaker Thought and Practice, Part II. London: Friends' Home Service, 1936.

This Document is on The Quaker Writings Home Page.

What am I here for if not to express my Self? What right has anyone to limit or thwart this self-expression of mine? Can't I do what I like with my own?

These are questions which each one of us puts to himself at times, with emphasis varying according to our changing circumstances. They have been raised in an acute form during the last ten or fifteen years, and have been asked indignantly, resentfully, fiercely. This is clearly due in part to a re-action of the human spirit against the bondage and blighting influences of the Great War. Multitudes of youths of all nations were denied the right to life, willy-nilly they were marched to death or worse; and however unselfish and devoted they may have been the survivors felt a burning grievance against a World Order that had led them to this. Hence a savage kicking against all restraint, a determination to " let rip " and have a good time, a natural but pathetic assertion of the right to a full and unshackled self-expression. Other factors no doubt contributed, but this seems clearly the most powerful.

The most striking and obvious example is that of the relationship between the sexes. Men and women alike have claimed full and unlicensed freedom in sexual relationships; the sacredness of marriage has been questioned as probably never before; promiscuity, companionate marriages, and other alternatives have been ardently advocated. This question is dealt with in Chapters V. and VI., and is only mentioned here as an example.

It is, of course, a very natural claim to make, and in a sense it is a witness to the Divine within us. We are conscious of the uniqueness, of the sacredness of our personality, and it is the "undying fire" within that prompts the claim. But after all we are human beings, and not mere animals, and one of the penalties we pay for that privilege - if penalty it be - is an inability to be satisfied with anything short of the highest. Deep down in the depths of our being there is a still small voice that it is almost impossible to drown completely, and that will persist in returning to the question "Have I not a right to do what I will with mine own? " the disconcerting answer " Ye are not your own, ye are bought with a price." For God claims us with a love that will not let us go.

Presumably we all agree that Self-expression is our duty, and the goal of our earthly pilgrimage. It all depends, however, on what sort of a Self we are going to express. There are several possible Selves in each o ne of us, or rather there are lower and higher levels of Selfhood that can be developed. Some Selves are not worth expressing and the sooner we realize that the better. Society soon shows us its opinion on this point. Let a man " run amok," let him express crudely the "jungle self," let him thieve, rape, murder - and no plea of self-expression will serve as a defense. He is dealt with promptly and severely: prison or lunatic asylum or gallows is the answer - however imperfect such an answer may be - that Society gives to his plea.

Few of us, we hope, are likely to break out in such modes of Self-expression, although one never knows! The more we know of our own hearts, the less certain we can be on this point: " There goes --, but for the grace of God." We are not, therefore, exempted from facing up to this question. Which Self am I claiming to express? Is it a Self whose expression will be to the glory of God and the service of man, or a Self that will bring nothing but sorrow and ashes in its train?

Of one thing we can be certain: Freedom does not mean License. No true Self can be developed or expressed that is regardless of others, and that does not impose on itself the Discipline of respect for the rights and selves of others. Limitation self-imposed for the benefit of others is not a limitation; it is liberating, enlarging, truly expressive. We best express our Self by losing that Self in love for others; we find our life by losing it. Apply this test to any desire we may have for Self-expression, and we see how miserable and untenable many of these claims are. How can we use others as a means to our own advancement or gratification ? How can we expect to find satisfaction in living for the moment or on an admittedly low level ? How can we inflict suffering on our fellows by any assertion of our own expression-rights? Gradually it dawns on us that it is only as we express our noblest, our ideal Self, that we can avoid causing suffering and loss to others, and that we can make any contribution to the common good that justifies our existence. Any other expression justifies the question being asked concerning each one of us - "Why cumbereth it the earth?"

Bitter experience soon teaches us, if we learn in no other way, that License soon defeats itself. The satisfaction that we claim in this way is never attained. The fruit that looked so alluring turns out to be Dead Sea Apples; we reverse the glorious promise of the Hebrew Prophet and get instead "ashes for garlands, mourning for the oil of joy, and the spirit of heaviness for the garment of praise." Unless the higher element in our Self rules over the lower elements and keeps them in their place, and unless it is this higher element that finds expression, the result must be disastrous. A State in which there is chaos and rebellion cannot be happy, nor can a Self find satisfaction wherein there is anarchy and mob-rule.

Several years ago there appeared in the Christian World " an article by J. B. (John Brierley), on "Growing a Soul." This made an indelible impression on my mind, and I would like briefly to pass on its message, being so appropriate to our present topic. Our chief business on this planet is that of " Soul Growing," and all else must be subordinate to this. This, I take it, Is only another way of saying we are here to develop and express our True Selves. We must, therefore, take this seriously, being the main concern of our lives: we must try to put first things first, and concentrate on the most important issues. Other issues may be interesting and good in themselves but they must all be regarded in their relationship to the main goal, and treated accordingly. For example, our Physical Life needs training and development: the body must be attended to. Bodily exercise, games, athletics all are necessary, and have their place. But to make them the chief concern in life is to court failure and dissatisfaction. As years pass by, our physical prowess declines; from being players we become spectators; our very names become forgotten, and the man who twenty years ago was an International is now unheeded. Those who have lived Solely for athletics, who have never cultivated their mental or spiritual activities, pass comparatively young into a life where regrets for the past fill a large place, and where there are few compensating advantages.

More blessed are those who have in addition built up a full and vigorous Mental Life, who by study and reading and other methods possess well-trained and disciplined minds. As they grow older, and their bodily powers fail they have an ever increasing heritage within, they have something which is more permanent and satisfying than mere powers of body, however good that may be.

It is possible, however, to have lived such a life as this, and yet not to have cultivated " the spiritual life " in anything like its fullness. Of course we cannot draw a hard and fast line between the intellectual and the spiritual life; they shade off one into the other. But it is possible to be a brilliant scholar or a man of wide culture, and yet to miss the depths of spiritual experience. So we conclude that more blessed still are those who have steadily put first things first, and who throughout their career have tried to look at life from the standpoint of eternity. They have consciously opened their hearts to communion with God, they have His presence and learnt to trust Him implicitly, and not necessarily endowed with any great physical or intellectual powers - they have entered already on Eternal Life, that life in God which is life indeed. Their bodily and mental powers may fail, nothing but death may stare them in the face, but they " greet the unseen with a cheer,"because though unseen it is not unfamiliar (for they have long been living there), and they go down into the valley with a song upon their lips. I do not wish sharply to differentiate the three types here mentioned, or to play any one of them off against the others. But such a line of thought as this does help us to "see life steadily and see it whole," to get things in their right proportion and to have a true perspective. They are not, of course, separate and distinct. If we are living for the highest in life, our physical and our intellectual life will be the better for it in every way: an "integrated personality" gives strength and value to each of its component parts.

If our eye is single, says Jesus, our whole body shall be full of light. If to know God, and to love Beauty, Truth and Goodness, be our supreme aim in life, then all our activities will be sanctified. True self-expression, for the Christian, is to make God actual in one's life - and not any god, but God as revealed by Jesus superlatively, and by many another consecrated soul in its measure. In thus striving to express our Self, we are expressing God and so emphasizing our fundamental belief as Quakers in the indwelling of God in man, and in the consequent inherent sacredness of every human soul.