Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The Serenity Prayer: Part II

 (Re-reading my last post, it feels like it loses its focus by covering way too much territory. So I'm putting the second half here, leaving the first part about marriage as its own piece. Here I apply those ideas to education, life and culture.)

I’ve written elsewhere about Alfred North Whitehead’s three stages of learning. The first is Romance, the time when we play with whatever we’re trying to learn, no right answers or wrong answers. I like that he chose the word “romance” and made the connection to those first flutterings of love when “all at once am I, several stories high, knowing I’m on the street where you live.” 


The second is Precision, a time when work is at the forefront, learning effective techniques and classified ideas, with right and wrong answers. “Do these jeans make me look fat?” “Have you noticed my hairline is receding?” There are right and wrong answers to those questions and woe to us if we fail that test. 


The third is Synthesis, where creation moves to the front and we combine the mystery and magic and fun of play with the precision and discipline and satisfaction of work. In a relationship, that’s when creative solutions to old problems are needed. Sometimes as simple as working at two different ends of the house, going out into the day with separate projects and friends and then coming together at the dinner table. 


As with learning, as with marriage, so with life. A childhood of playful romance, an adulthood of intense precision that includes the determination to change all that’s wrong out in the world and finally, an elderhood that has the wisdom to accept some of the things that can never be changed and find peace with it.


But be careful. Such resignation can also be dangerous to our public health and give free reign to evil practices afoot. I love Angela Davis’ variation on the first line of the Serenity Prayer above:


“Give me the courage to change the things I cannot accept.”


Like this new monstrous war in Israel. The ongoing monstrous war in Ukraine. All wars everywhere, which don’t need the qualifying adjective “monstrous” because they all are. Like he-who-shall-not-be-named not only not in jail yet, but running for President again and somehow, it’s not a joke. Here we are again, caught in the cycle of our constant failure as a species even as it seemed we were making progress. Though it’s tempting to be numbed into inaction, we need to remember that these human-created horrors fall into the category of that which we can —and must—change. 


As an aside, that Serenity Prayer first caught public attention in AA Meetings and was attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. But it actually was composed by a 20th century theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr. But St. Francis’s actual prayer is also good to remember in this next turn we’ve taken into darkness. May it guide our actions today and in all the days to follow.


O Divine Master, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.


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