The Wisdom to Know

29 09 2017

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
–Reinhold Niebuhr

Here’s a disclaimer, right up front: serenity is not a quality I have generally understood, nor have I actively sought serenity in my daily life. I offer this truth, not as a self-criticism or as some kind of humble brag. I just wish to make it clear at the outset that I don’t know much about serenity.

That said, I’ve been thinking about the serenity prayer quite a bit lately. Not so much the serenity part, but the acceptance, courage, and wisdom parts. Each of us may decide for ourselves whether we are blessed or cursed to be living in these “interesting times”; for my part, it feels important to wonder if I am responding as my best self. Acceptance, courage and wisdom play a huge role in that assessment.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

I am an Idealist. Even as a child, adults were often hurling this word at me as if it were an epithet: “You’re such an idealist!” It became a phrase I hated. Once I understood what the term meant, I was confused about why people seemed to think it was a bad thing. It came as no surprise when, in graduate school, I studied the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator and found myself to be an INFP – the Idealist. All of this is background so you will understand when I say I have trouble with this line of the serenity prayer. My brain looks at the world and struggles to find things that I cannot change. So far the list is minimal: weather, in the short-run (over the long run, climate change suggests that I can have, for good or ill, an impact on weather); someone else’s choices (though I can impact the circumstances, opinions, feelings that may guide those choices)…Ok, let’s face it – I just don’t think there are things I cannot change!

This goes deeper than a personality preference. If I believe (and I do) that we are all connected, then it behooves me to take a long view of  change. The ripples I send out into the world (my actions, my thoughts, my being) effect change – whether I see or comprehend their impact is almost irrelevant. Of course, I take the most pride and pleasure in having a visible, measurable impact for the good. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m aware that sometimes I have a negative impact as well. This does not make me proud.)

Acceptance of the things I cannot change, then, becomes more about accepting that I will never single-handedly change society or culture in a manner that is immediately operational. Institutional racism, for example, will only change if many people like me act in concert and with good will to create change then continue to act in ways that support and institutionalize equality. Learning to accept that change is both possible and occurring, even when it is imperceptible to me, is as close to finding serenity within the context of this line as I am likely to get.

…the courage to change the things I can…

I admire courage. Whether it is evidenced by someone acting on their convictions, taking a chance on the untried/unknown, or putting themselves between another person and harm I try to recognize and support courage when I see it in action. But I, myself, am a bit on the cowardly side. For most of us, courage is not a response we can plan in advance; it is too easy to reason ourselves off the hook. When we do act with courage, more often than not we are moved to act by immediate circumstances unfolding around us.

But the serenity prayer isn’t speaking to that kind of “in the heat of the moment” courage. It is talking about the courage to face our own weaknesses; the courage to stand in our truth day after day, even if/when no one stands with us; the courage of our convictions that “there is a right thing I must do” regardless of the cost. I am sometimes called to speak truth to power, but often find it difficult to do the speaking – much like being unable to scream in the midst of a nightmare, fear of the possible repercussions interferes with my courageous expression. This line of the serenity prayer calls me to find my voice and make it be heard anyway.

Speaking of finding my voice, there is also the courage required to be a broken record in service to justice. To consistently call on the “better angels” (as Lincoln put it) of our nature to heal and to forgive and to forge new understanding requires tenacity and commitment. At a time when it is fashionable to use the phrase “social just warrior (SJW)” as a pejorative, the courage to walk this path daily is often unrecognized or unwelcome – yet absolutely necessary for change.

And so I pray for courage.

…and the wisdom to know the difference.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom,” says Confucius. “First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Whatever of actual wisdom we gain via these methods is precious. Like the proverbial pearl of great price, not only have we paid dearly for it, but it can be lost to us if we do not treasure it and if we do not use it.

Proverbs (4:6-7) tells us: “Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” Wow. That bears repeating:

“Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”

So wisdom is more than self-knowledge, deeper than experience. It is nothing less than gaining understanding – which requires these things, but also empathy and compassion. There is no wisdom that is merely self-referenced. No wonder wisdom feels both so important and so difficult to attain.

Given all of these musings, is it any wonder I’ve been unable to get this darn prayer off my mind? So much for serenity!

Look, I’m not the kind of idealist who expects perfection; but I am an idealist who believes that whatever better future we imagine is possible. I’m not sure I need to find serenity at the cost of choosing which change is possible, because what is possible is always changing. I am willing to concede that there are limitations to my ability to change the world, to change systems, to change minds or hearts. But these limitations are not limitations of possibility but of imagination and they are made less possible when I cower rather than act with courage. I believe that courage is a muscle that can be made stronger through repetitive use – whether I stand, speak or take a knee to express what I hold as truth, what I value.

All of it, always, returns to wisdom. Knowing how and when to act, whether speech or silence is most needed, how to exercise your courage so that it is strong when you – and the world – need it most…wisdom is the generator of true discernment. And if in gaining wisdom any of us find a modicum of serenity as well, may we be blessed by it.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”                                         –Abraham Lincoln

 

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Notes from the Middle Ground

31 12 2015

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see a new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”  — Bill Vaughan

I’m torn: The optimist in me wants to take an inspirational look ahead, to set a positive tone for the new year. The pessimist in me wants to review the past twelve months, enumerating and wallowing in its difficulties. One approach seems disingenuous, the other disenchanting.

In a small way, today’s conundrum is representative of my whole life: it often feels like this life has been an exercise in seeking a comfortable perch somewhere in the middle. When I saw an astrologer to have my natal chart drawn, she said my personality was evenly balanced between the four classical elements of earth, air, water, fire. Every personality test has born that out – I tend to balance in the middle, on the fulcrum-point between polar opposites (extrovert/introvert; red/blue; task/process).

I know, this doesn’t sound like a problem. However, we are all living in a world – a culture, a moment in time – when polarities carry the day. Today’s is a zeitgeist in which, simply to be heard, voices stray as far to the ends of the continuum as they dare. As the ends of the continuum exert an outward pull, the middle ground stretches thin, making it ever-more-difficult to balance there.

Throughout my life, voices around me have declared, “That’s the way it is. You can’t change it.” These same voices have proudly staked out their territory as that of realism, casting me onto the ever-shaky (and mostly disrespected) ground of idealism. These days, I’m coming to think of idealism as the middle ground. It appears to be the only place from which a voice that hopes for peace, that trusts in love, that doesn’t cast other human beings as evil demons can emerge.

Let the realists have that territory at both ends of the spectrum, since they claim it anyway. In many ways, the middle ground is the only hopeful ground on which to stand. Someone told me recently, “It is a fallacy to believe that every voice holds equal weight.” That’s a realistic statement if I’ve every heard one. Still, is that right? Is that just? Here in the middle where there is less shouting, I can hear more voices, can allow them each their weightiness. Here in the middle we talk and we ask first, shoot later. In fact, we don’t shoot until/unless we’ve exhausted other options, so mostly shooting isn’t necessary. Living in the middle requires impulse-control, requires me to hold my fear in check, expects me to breathe through the anxiety until I am able to do more than lash out.

There’s a belief out there that the middle ground is lacking in passion, and I’ve often labored under that assumption myself. At times, it was the reason I tried to abandon the middle. But now I see that isn’t true. For me, calm and peace and reason are to be striven for with passionate abandon from right here, in the very middle. I may sway to the left or to the right, but mostly I seek a creative path straight through the center, to the heart of things. Here in the middle, I’m not supporting the status quo – that is a story that keeps getting told in order to force people to the poles. In fact, it may be the status quo is held in place by the equal but opposing force exerted at the ends of the continuum. More people in the creative middle might have the effect of causing the tension to ease; eventually the tightrope could slacken and bend into a new shape, into new possibilities. What is that old proverb – if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail? When everyone is standing on one end or the other shouting at the top of their lungs, perhaps a different volume, even a whisper, issuing from the middle may offer new insights.
Just to be clear, I am not talking about passively standing in place. I am not saying that things ought to stay the same – I am claiming a reinterpretation of the dominant paradigm. I am simply unconvinced that ratcheting up the adversarial model we’ve been living in is getting us anywhere. The pessimist in me feels overwhelmed by today’s world. The optimist in me sees possibilities for making tomorrow’s world better. Change won’t happen if we continue to do what we’ve been doing, only more so. And I refuse to allow my dreams of a better world to be defined by the rhetoric of extremism, left or right.
Which brings me back to my original conundrum. Which lens  will it be – optimism or pessimism – through which I will view this ending of one year and beginning of a new? Now that I think about it, that may be the wrong question, after all. Perhaps the lens required in this middle ground I’ve staked out is the lens of hope. As Vaclav Havel, creative thinker, writer, activist so eloquently articulated:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.