Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Random Musings: Thoughts On The Serenity Prayer

In the title of this blog, I kind of promise musings. I haven't posted a good musing in a while so here goes.

This is very, very random. I don't consider it to be all that insightful. In fact, I don't quite know what I'm going to say about this yet. But I saw something today, and I decided I wanted to work out how I felt about it.

What I saw wasn't anything particularly insightful or new. It was a very, very old homily that you've probably read dozens of times. I certainly have.

It was etched in blue glass held up by a wooden rack. It said this:

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.

A little bit of research reveals this little gem is known as the Serenity Prayer. It's a plea to God for a balanced view of life.

What struck me on this reading is one tiny little thing that I'd never really noticed before. The poem is actually making a second statement, besides the obvious one.

See if you can guess what it is. Go ahead and re-read the poem, and aside from the actual message of the poem, what other philospohy is it teaching about the way the world works?

The Wikepedia entry for this little verse includes the following poem, which I like better and contains none of the message of the Serenity Prayer that bothers me:

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.

So what's the difference? What is in the first verse that's not in the second poem?

Okay, here's my answer: The first verse suggests that the way we interact with the world is by trying to change it.

The inherent message is we should see the world in terms of changeability. The world is a place that's full of stuff that needs changing, and if it can't be changed then we are safe to sit back and accept it, but if it can change, we need to be courageous and change it.

My problem with this is the inherent need this suggests to people that their best course of action is to go around changing things, only leaving the unchangeable things untouched among the altered objects.

I don't think that's the best way to see the world. Seriously.

Notice I don't have any problem with the poem. I don't have any problem with the idea that people should actively try to find solutions to their problems. I'm all in favor of people taking initiative.

But the Serenity Prayer implies that solving your problem and making something change are the same thing. That trying to change the world around us is inherently virtuous. Specifically, it's courageous.

I disagree, for a few reasons.

The first one is that, most of the time, what people most want to see changed is people. People think that the key to solving a problem is to get other people to stop being the way they are. If the atheists would just accept God, or if the Christians would just stop believing, or if my girlfriend would just stop spending so much money, or if my Mother-in-law would just stop trying to control the way my kids are raised--if these folks would just change, things would be great and I could be happy.

The same thing that applies to people can also apply to circumstances.

If you feel like the only reason you haven't got a job is because the job market just isn't open to left-handed Delewarians with mullet haircuts, you can make a "courageous" change in the world by getting legislation passed that forces employers to treat you fairly.

If you feel like your neighborhood would be a better place if "that one" family wasn't around, and after talking to a bunch of other people in the neighborhood, you find out you're not the only one of that opinion, you might discover that you can make a "courageous" change in the world by getting together with some other folks and driving the undesirables out of your neighborhood.

Do you see my point? The problem with treating the world like it's our living room and we're the interior designer is that to do it, too often you're having to try to change stuff in other people's lives--or even other people themselves--in ways that they don't need or want. To me, the definition of violence is the attempt to impose your will upon another with no regards for their rights, needs, or desires.

Now I'm not saying that change isn't often necessary. Even violence is sometimes necessary.

What I am saying is that I don't believe that changing the world as we want it to be is inherently moral. In fact, trying to change either individuals or the world into being what I, as an individual, want it to be, runs a very good chance of being immoral.

For that to be obvious, just imagine the guy on the other end of whatever spectrum matters to you imposing his will on you. Does that make the immorality of it more apparent? Can you see what you were wanting to do to them?

Besides being immoral, it's also ineffective. The surest way to meet resistance is to start pushing things around when other people may want them pushed back. The surest way to make the rebellious teenager settle further into his bizarre new identity is to start subtly trying to manipulate him into changing. He'll see your attempts to change him as judgemental rejection and dig even deeper into his identity as he tells himself all the reasons why you're wrong and he's doing great.

Trying to get people to change for your sake is the sure path to them throwing down their own gauntlet of self-justification and them trying to get you to change, as you reinforce the idea in their minds that the two of you cannot coexist as you are. And then their efforts to change you will reinforce your beliefs that they must change, lest you suffer.

In reality, the biggest problem in your relationship is both of you trying to get each other to change.

So if I were to adjust the homily, I think I would say it like this:

God grant me the humility to stop expecting the world to change for me, and the sense of responsibility to deal with my own problems.

I'll be getting that printed up on blue glass soon.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Sci-fi vs. Lit Fic