Francis Gardom on growing up

A few weeks ago one of our sons, now in his late thirties, sent a birthday card to his mother. On the cover it reads:

As it’s your Birthday Mum, I thought I’d remind you of all the Little Things I’ve said over the years that will bring back Happy Memories…

When the card is opened a plaintive, whining child’s voice says the following words:

‘Oh Mother!’
‘It’s not fair!’
‘Oh! Why?’
‘I can’t wait.’
‘All my friends have got one!’

How often one has heard that cry from one of the children! But nowadays one hears it coming from the mouths of adults with ever-increasing frequency.

A child’s idea of right and wrong – like his ideas of everything else – has to start by being very simple. Actions are either Right or Wrong in the way that objects are either Big or Small.

As he grows up a child learns to distinguish between various gradations within categories such as Right-and-Wrong – and learn words like good, excellent, bad, better, worse, fair, disgraceful, and unfair – and apply them accurately to the way in which people, himself and others, are behaving.

So it’s very important, in the first instance, to teach children the obvious differences between fair and unfair especially so far as the rights of others are concerned. Simple fairnesses – like ‘taking turns’ ‘sharing their sweets’, ‘not queue-barging’ and ‘playing fair’ – should be part of every child’s moral education.

But equally, everyone needs to learn how to progress beyond these simple rules; otherwise he or she will remain nothing but a child – and, as St Paul says, the time comes when we should ‘put away childish things’. The trouble with many grown-ups is that they suffer from what we might call ‘arrested moral development’ and one frequently hears otherwise mature people today still complaining about things not being fair. When anyone says ‘It’s not fair!’, it’s a sign that their feelings are taking them back to the nursery-stage of their development.

The fact is that in God’s world, Being Fair, though it has its place among them, is only one of several virtues which we must consider when we’re seeking to do his will in a given situation. It’s no use thinking we’ll always be able to get by with just one or two simple rules – that’s the nursery attitude again.

Match of the Day

To appreciate what this means it’s useful to take the example of what’s known as the Advantage Rule in Association Football as it is applied by the Referee throughout the match. He knows the rules; but every minute of the game he has to use his discretion whether or not to apply the Advantage Rule if the game is to be played satisfactorily – and fairly.

For instance if a player in one team, other than the goalkeeper, handles the ball, the other team has a right to expect the Referee to blow his whistle and award them a free-kick. But just suppose that in handling the ball the offending player accidentally diverts it into his own goal (yes, such things do happen, even amongst professionals!). The experienced referee won’t have stopped the game for the ‘hands’ offence, because, in the instant between the offence being committed and the goal being scored he will have reckoned that the fact that the offence resulted in a goal against the offending player’s side is more than enough to redress any balance upset by the offence.

If the Referee had followed the No-Hands rule to the letter – whistle, stop game, free kick – it would be less fair in this instance than ignoring the offence and allowing the other side their goal. To argue, as someone might do who was ignorant of the Advantage Rule, that the referee is being unfair, is to misunderstand the nature of Football. Football is all about scoring goals, not how many free kicks are awarded. In this instance the Referee is applying a higher Rule – the Advantage Rule – in the interest of greater fairness.

The True Referee

So we shouldn’t be too surprised if from time to time God, the Almighty, All-Wise Referee, allows an element of apparent unfairness to enter the world which he created. Before accusing him of unfairness we need to be sure that what he allows to happen is not for the ultimate benefit of creation of which we are a part.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to for us to come to terms with in this respect is the fact that death appears sometimes to strike so indiscriminately.

Part of the problem is that few people are ready for death, their own or others’, so that when it comes unexpectedly their natural reaction is to feel unfairly treated. But given that death and taxes are the only two certainties in life, being wholly unprepared for either of them is, shall we say, not a very adult attitude.

As Christians we believe that our death is a necessary part of our perfection. On earth we can only approximate to the perfection for which God created us. His idea, remember, was not primarily that we should have a good time in this world, but that our chief end should be to glorify and enjoy him for ever. Enjoyment should come into it, just as it should come into playing football. But if a team were to suppose that enjoying themselves is the chief end of football, rather than scoring goals, they would be wrong. Not only will they lose every match, but neither they nor their opponents will enjoy the game very much!

St Paul understood the dilemma of death when he writes in his letter to the Philippians:

Life to me, of course, is Christ, but then death would bring me something much more … I do not know what I should choose. I am caught in this dilemma: I want to be gone and be with Christ, which would be very much better, but for me to stay alive in this body is a more urgent need for your sake.

One can see his difficulty. But if we have the mind of Christ, which St Paul urges all Christians to have earlier in the same letter, we shall thereby have the mind of God.

Learning the Mind of God is a lifetime’s occupation. But in doing so we shall begin to see and understand things from God’s point-of-view, not just our own – which is another skill which a child needs to helped to acquire – because it’s entirely possible that something which appeared at first to our infant mind to be utterly unfair may turn out in practice to be nothing less than a blessing in disguise when viewed later from a maturer, more adult perspective.

Francis Gardom is Honorary Secretary of Cost of Conscience