Noel Cheong | Wonder
Who are you and what do you do in Oxford?
I’m Noel, and I just graduated from Mansfield College in 2019 with a BA in Theology and Religion. I’m now doing an MPhil in Theology at Keble, making this is my 4th year in Oxford. When I’m not busy geeking out in the library, you might find me playing squash or ambling around Port Meadow!
What is the most wonderful thing about life?
It’s hard to answer this question without sounding painfully cliché, but I think the most wonderful thing for me is purpose. One incredible phase of my life was a ten-month stint in Nepal, helping the people there after the devastating 2015 earthquakes. I loved my work, I loved the country, and I loved the community around me. My time, my skills, and my energy were all being used in ways which made a difference in people’s lives, and I was surrounded by like-minded peers who (despite our oddities!) were incredible friends. The inconveniences of 40-hour bus rides and non-existent toilets became almost bearable in light of the pervading sense of purpose in where I was and what I was doing.
Is there something more?
Definitely. It’s awesome to feel like you have a purpose to work for, but it’s equally crushing to feel like you’ve lost your purpose.
Like many people, I’ve suffered the ignominy of unrequited love and rejection. As our cultural icons Taylor Swift and One Direction testify, these experiences can make us melodramatically question our will to live. Or on a more serious note, we sometimes find ourselves in situations or in work which just feel absolutely meaningless, whether it’s a banal part-time job we took up for the cash, or a degree you regretted choosing by the end of Freshers’ Week.
Sometimes, we do manage to find and achieve some sort of purpose – but it doesn’t last, or it doesn’t fully satisfy. I’ve worked among the homeless in Oxford over the past four years, and I’ve had high hopes that my prayers and efforts would effect real and lasting change. Yet I’m often left frustrated, as homeless friends remain trapped in cycles of poverty, sometimes taking advantage of me and of each other. Likewise, those exhilarating ten months in Nepal eventually came to an end. I said farewell to the people I met, and stepped into a painful year of listlessness, floating along without direction. That was crushing too.
Just having a clear sense of purpose doesn’t suddenly make life sheer bliss. It matters what that purpose is. As a Christian, knowing that all I do is done with God and for God changes everything. It gives me the confidence to know that, even after I left Nepal, my Father is still there, saving lives and restoring homes. It reminds me, when my frustration with the homelessness situation in Oxford gives way to apathy, that there is a God who knows no apathy but who loved his enemies even when they hated and crucified him. And it stirs me that this God did the same for me, even when I let myself and everyone else down.
Jesus led a purposeful life, and it led to his execution. But then he was raised, that even a weak and error-prone man like me might have something worth living for, which outshines any failure or achievement. That’s a wonderful thing indeed.