A quick post on a quick insight I gained over the past two days. I shall not go into details on the exact provenance of this insight but suffice to say that it wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences that caused a fair amount of frustration but also produced an angst-filled haze of productivity that allowed me to complete a surprising amount of work within a short period of time. I like productivity but would rather not have to elicit angst for me to get work done. But I digress…
In his oft-quoted prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr helps us pray for the ‘Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference’. This so-called Serenity Prayer can seem somewhat fatalistic or defeatist but I also do think that it helps us in realising that there are many things that we face that are not matters of choice for us. The wisdom that allows us to know the difference is thus the most important grace that we seek – and it is that same wisdom that would enable us to act appropriately in any situation.
So what about that whole serenity thing? It conjures up images of people sitting cross-legged at the beach or under the tree, eyes half closed, breathing in the essence of the world around while connecting to God. Pretty, yes but that’s not going to happen. Not all the time anyway. Serenity points to peace – and in the context of things that don’t go well for us that we can’t change, peace in the face of external difficulties. It’s hard to achieve this peace if we struggle against it but how is one to stop struggling in the first place?
Humility. Humility in the face of things that we can’t change – in recognising our limitations and knowing that we aren’t the masters of the universe and never will be. We’ve been schooled to think things like ‘impossible is nothing’ or ‘you can do anything as long as you put your mind to it’, which are great motivational mantras but ultimately misleading. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against self-determination and being the best that one can be but taking that to the logical extreme and thinking that we are the beginning and end in our relationship with the world and others would be an arrogance that’s, for want of a better word, sinful. We are limited, sometimes incomplete and always imperfect – being humble will enable us to live with this and accept the frustrating bits of things that occur around us that we are powerless to go against.
So what Niebuhr tells us is this: Be humble in your imperfections and limitations as you can’t change everything. We pray for wisdom to know what we can or cannot do, always realising that the very act of prayer means that we recognise that we are but creatures – images of God but creatures nonetheless. Humility in this sense does indeed lead to serenity, with or without the beach and tree.