|Published on Tue, 29 May 2018 15:30|
What makes a good life?
Once upon a time, there lived, in Greenland, a young woman called Sika. Her life was OK – she worked as a farmer in the summer and in the winter she watched the Northern Lights and organized dog sleigh rides for tourists. On the surface, she seemed happy. But there was something missing in her life… it all seemed fine, but underneath it wasn’t really, and she didn’t know quite why.
She realized, after a while, that the question she was asking is: what makes a good life? So she decided to try to find out.
She asked everyone in Greenland, and she had lots of answers: whale steak, a heavy snow fall, a nice warm igloo… But nothing quite seemed to be right answer. In the end she decided she had to go abroad.
First, she went to England. And there, she began to tweet. ‘What makes a good life’? She didn’t get many answers, but in the end she got one, from someone called Sterling, who suggested meeting for coffee. She wasn’t quite sure about meeting for coffee, but she wanted to know the answer: so she did.
Some of you will remember Sterling. He spent a bit of time at St John’s, earlier this year. He was a pound coin, but now he has grown up and lives in a bank account…. He spent some happy times at St John’s but now, because of the vagaries of the financial system, he has gone, through being part of a hedge fund, to providing capital for an armaments company, which makes enormous profits through sales of weapons to the Yemenis.
That’s easy, said Sterling: get rich. Wealth makes your life more comfortable.
But does it satisfy you, said Sika? Does it make you feel fulfilled?
Oh goodness, said Sterling: I used to worry about all that stuff, but not any more. Now I’m much more interested in the bottom line…
Sika wasn’t happy with his answer. She was sure there must be more to it than that. So she decided to travel on: and looked online: and the first flight she saw was to Morocco.
Off she went to Casablanca. She was expecting to be alone on the plane; but, to her great surprise, when she got to the airport, who should be there, checking in his bag, was Sterling!
What are you doing here, she said? Oh, said Sterling, a bit shamefaced, I just thought I’d come with you. Your question unsettled me. I decided I wanted to know what makes a good life.
So they landed in the heat and dust of a Casablanca evening: and, once again, Sika started tweeting. ‘Who can tell me what makes a good life?’ And after a bit, she got a reply, from someone called Celeb. Who offered to meet her and Sterling for a cup of mint tea in a café by the sea.
Celeb was well flash. He was covered in bling: gold chains around his neck: he arrived in a car with a driver and blackened windows… and he said: I can tell you what makes a good life: celebrity. The admiration of others, the income, the praise; it’s all gorgeous. I love it!
Sika thought about it a bit. But when she pushed him a bit, Celeb didn’t seem very happy: he was edgy, and always wanting people to watch him. She asked Sterling: who agreed. And they decided to head off to somewhere else and see if they could find out what makes a good life.
The next available flight was to Sierra Leone. Sterling and Sika got to the airport in good time; but they were amazed when, suddenly, a big black car drew up outside and out got Celeb! Who looked a bit shamefaced and said, well, you know what, I wondered too… just thought I’d come along, if that’s OK?
When they got to Freetown Sika started tweeting again. Soon she got an answer, from a woman called Teacher, who offered to meet them for a coffee by the sea. So Celeb and Sterling and Sika all headed off to the café, where a gentle looking woman was sitting at a big table nursing a black Americano. Freetown was the poorest place Sika had ever seen: but somehow she didn’t find it depressing.
So, Teacher, she said, what makes a good life?
Teacher pulled out a sheaf of papers. Here, she said, is a Harvard study of 700 people which has been carried out over 75 years. It show that the key thing for a good life is: relationships!! Social connections make a difference and loneliness can kill. People who are more isolated find that they are less happy, their brain functioning declines sooner and death can come earlier
And, she went on, it’s not just the number of friends and relationships you have: it’s the quality of the relationship. Living in the midst of good warm relationships is protective.
Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere, Sika said: I can see the point about relationships. But is a long life necessarily a good life? Is the whole point of living to live for a long time?
She was starting to get quite depressed, and to think that her quest was never going to be fulfilled. Could no one tell her what makes a good life?
The next available flight, with three spaces on it, was to Jerusalem. OK, thought Sika, that’s where we’re going. So she booked three seats and off they went to the airport.
Imagine the surprise of Sterling, Celeb and Sika when, who should turn up at the airport, on a rickshaw from town, but Teacher! Who looked a bit shamefaced and said, well, you know, I just thought it would be interesting to know a bit more…
This time they just went into the streets of Jerusalem; it was busy, and noisy, but on the Temple mount there was a bit of quiet; and they saw a man standing surrounded by people. They went over: he had a long beard and long hair and looked peaceful. Sika went closer so that she could hear him talk:
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
What on earth is he talking about, thought Sika? Is he an agricultural policy adviser who’s got the wrong train? But as she was wondering whether they had come to the right place, Sterling suddenly shouted:
Good teacher, what must I do to lead a good life?
Call me Jesus, said the man: and that’s a very good question. I’m glad you asked it.
He thought for a bit, and then said,
I’d say that relationships matter, you’re right, Teacher. Teacher looked a bit surprised, as she couldn’t remember ever having spoken to Jesus. Yes, relationships matter: friendships and partnerships. But it doesn’t stop there. Being part of an outward looking community matters. A community of care and generosity. A congregation, say. Anywhere where you can love God and love your neighbour. In fact, said Jesus, a number of studies have shown associations between attending religious services and living a long time.
But it’s not necessarily about living a long time! said Sika.
I know, said Jesus – I of all people can attest to the fact that a short life can be effective too – but it’s a signifier. There are other important things too. Prayer helps, a lot, in the living of a good life. But the most important thing is to love: love God, and love your neighbour. There is a prophet who has spoken much wisdom and I suggest you listen to him. His name is William Blake. He said this:
‘We are put upon this earth a little while, that we may learn to bear the beams of love.’
And how should we do that, good Jesus? they all cried.
I’m sorry, said Jesus, but really you have to work that our for yourselves. Your world is completely different to mine. I suggest you go off and see how you can put these things into practice.
So they thanked Jesus and went and checked flights; and the first one with four spaces together – for it seemed, now, that Sika and her happy band had coalesced – was to London. Back they went to London.
It was Sunday morning when they arrived, and they took the tube from Heathrow, and, by chance, ended up near a big church not far from the IMAX. It was 10.25, so they went in, to discover the beginnings of a church congregation. And they stayed, and listened, and after a bit the vicar started preaching.
By wonderful coincidence, he was speaking about what makes a good life.
Good relationships are part of it, he said. That’s important. Teacher looked around, smiling. But good relationships not just with your family and friends; with everyone around you; and with the world you are part of! Today, he said, is Earth Sunday – when we are called to remember the earth of which we are part! If anyone has flown in today from, say, Jerusalem – have they offset the CO2 they have produced by flying? Sika and Celeb and Sterling and Teacher shuffled nervously and looked at the floor. And what else are you doing to care for those around you?
It’s about more than good relationships. It’s about loving and living, said the vicar; and that requires work, and time, and thought, and commitment. Some people find that having a Rule of Life is helpful in living a good life, and if they want further information about that there is lots on the church’s website, under ‘worship.’ Sika made a mental note to check that out.
And what you do with your money is important – especially caring for those who are hungry and homeless – and Sterling looked a bit proud because he knew the vicar was talking about that but also a bit shamefaced because he knew at the moment he was funding arms to Yemen – and what you do with your skills – and Celeb preened himself a bit and sang a few notes, but also looked a bit shamefaced because he knew that there were different things he could have done with his skills.
Above all, said the vicar – there are no quick fixes. As I say, leading a good life takes time, and energy, and effort. And prayer. And thought.
And at the end of the service, Sika and Sterling and Celeb and Teacher stayed behind for coffee and chat, and met a few of the other people at the church; but in the end they went back to where they’d come from, saying fond farewells to each other and promising to stay in touch. And they took what they had found with them, and they all lived happily ever after.