Every one of you sitting here today is unique. A unique living organism, individual in every respect - from the pattern of your fingerprints, the DNA contained in your hair, the colour and patterning of your eyes to your tastes, dislikes and personalities. Looking around this beautiful chapel this morning I hope we can be thankful that there’s plenty of variety here and everyone is individually very different. Individuality is a fundamental concept of our humanity and life would be so dull if we were all the same.
When our ancestors tried to figure out why the world is how it is, they wrote about the creation of the world. Christians read of this in Genesis, the very first book of the Bible. But there is something very strange in this account: we are told that God created Man ‘in his own image.’
I don’t really know how to make sense of the idea of Man as ‘God-like’, but perhaps - in some way - this is meant to represent the fact that human beings are different from everything else on earth – they are conscious, evolved individuals who are each individually unique – formed from an infinite collection of gene combinations, a talent pool as deep as the deepest ocean you could imagine.
And yet, we are not just about being individuals, we form communities, live together, eat together, sit and sing together, even sleep together (if you’re allowed). Getting individuals together – togetherness, as we heard in chapel this past week - has massive benefits which you are all very well aware of – you hear lots about the importance of teamwork, support, communities, pulling together and co-operating all the time.
But aren’t we all guilty of the negative side of togetherness from time to time? Forgetting our individuality or not having enough confidence in it, and preferring blindly to follow others - the herd mentality if you like.
Imagine you are in a swanky hotel, you get in the lift (one of those with doors which open on both sides) and you’re on your own. Face away from the doors, pretending you know for sure that the doors on the other side will open at the next stop. Everyone joining the lift will face the same way as you – even if you’re wrong.
Have you noticed that when a train pulls into a busy platform one person starts walking down the platform towards the arriving train – quite why I don't know! - and then everyone else joins in?
Have you ever parked in an empty car park and wondered why someone drives in and parks right next to you?
These are all examples of the herd mentality the tendency to ‘follow someone else’, that lives within all of us – we probably share 98% of our DNA with a buffalo after all. Maybe we are pre-programmed with a herd mentality?
And this ‘buffalo outlook’ (shall we call it?) presents a challenge particularly for young people finding their way. We all spend so much time worrying about everyone else – what they’re wearing, where they’re going, where they’ve been on holiday, what they’ve got – that we forget that in the end, it can only be about ourselves, the individual, not the rest of the herd. Putting it another way, it’s about what is metaphorically printed on the inside of you. Who is the real you?
If you are a believer, then the idea of being created in God’s image encourages you to see yourself as a unique individual, better than the herd, with something important and strong and full of value within you. And whether you’re a believer or not, it’s a wonderful thing if you can find for yourself this inner self and the confidence that goes with it to be your own person, to do your own thing and make your own choices. It’s sad how often people don’t actually do this.
The real discovery of life is that true happiness is not about feeling pleasant sensations all the time. It is knowing the truth about yourself so that you are no longer enslaved by your illusions and your body’s biochemical cravings.
In life, later today, next week, in the Fourth Form, whenever, you’ll be asked to make tough choices, to say yes to one thing and no to another – no to distractions, no to things that don’t support your core aims and values – but this won’t be easy – those decisions can be tough and can cost you friends and, later in life, money – but in the teenage context particularly I think, it can cost you friends.
Duty and ‘doing the right thing’ can look boring sometimes when compared to more exciting options. We are often worried about how being an individual might look in front of our friends – but then if they are going to judge you like that, I wonder what definition of friends we are using: Real friends for life or people you need because you think it will make your life easier at school?
A headline in The Times last month caught my eye: ‘Half of your friends don’t really like you’ – researchers from top US university MIT asked 84 university students whether they thought that their friend regarded them as a friend. They said ‘yes’ 94% of the time, but on only 53% of occasions did that so-called friend actually agree that the friendship was mutual. In other words, the study revealed a big gap between how we see our social circle and how they see us. In reality and I don't want to depress you BUT you might consider someone a friend but in actual fact, they could not care less about you! And the idea is said to be so unsettling for people that they prefer to assume that all their friendships are mutual. So beware of your friends especially if you end up at a US university!
The good news is that College is not a university and we’ll aim to provide you with the best possible environment in which to first decide on what matters to you, what is written on your inside if you like (think stick of rock) and then to get your friendships right – and September provides a brilliant opportunity for a fresh start - and so incidentally do the chapel services and the weekly themes we create - designed to get you thinking about what really matters.
There is lots of advice you can pick up about the key to a successful life, but one which I think holds true for everyone is that the sure route to failure, the certain way to flop – is trying to make everyone happy all of the time.
So my advice at the start of this academic year? Know yourself, back yourself, avoid the herd. If you truly know yourself, you’ll make the right choices. If you ever find yourself having made the wrong choices, seek to understand yourself better. Don’t be a buffalo.