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.
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
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
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
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.