19. Reinhold Niebuhr's Prayer
Someone has given me a pen with the familiar little prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr on it in gold letters:
The more you look at it, the deeper its meaning seems to penetrate. All three of the clauses are so important, one hardly knows where to start in any consideration of them. I think I will begin with the last: "God grant us the wisdom to know what we can (and ought to) change in life (in our own life and in the world around us) and what we cannot change and should not attempt to change." Much unhappiness, frustration, guilt feeling and wasted effort are caused by our trying to change things which we cannot change: which are beyond our competence, which are other people's responsibility not ours. We are called "interfering do-gooders" and are accused of trying to direct the traffic or even "playing God." On the other hand, much unhappiness is caused by needless submission to disorderly conditions which we could improve if we set about it. With courage and persistence, one individual can have a tremendous influence for good in the world. So, if we find anything wrong in our situation, we must consider very carefully whether we should, or should not, attempt to change it; how we could best improve it. To what degree, if at all, is it within our competence to right the wrong? Sometimes we shall decide that to attempt to change it would introduce even greater evils. For example, a doctor has to decide whether cobalt treatment might not have more harmful side-effects than the disease it is supposed to cure; whether the remedy might not prove worse than the disease. In such a case there must be some very careful weighing of pros and cons. Maybe our own wisdom is inadequate, and so we must pray earnestly to the Lord for guidance, for the "long view." We must decide what is more valuable in His sight and what is less.
As for making changes in oneself, this is very difficult and gets more difficult the older we grow. Probably we cannot change our character much, the peculiar flavor of our personality; but we can change the direction in which we are operating. We can place our gifts at the disposal of the Lord instead of using them only in the service of self, and this will certainly make a big difference to the end-product. And of course we can take account of certain elements in our character which we have found to be annoying to other people, and prune them back or change them altogether, as an expression of our newly-developing love of the neighbor. Our personal freewill operates in a very restricted area; but that area is our growing-edge, it is the vital area of our lives, and we must take immense pains to choose wisely within it.
Now, the next point of importance is: having made up your mind what you should do, you must set about doing it at once, without shilly-shallying. Having set your hand to the plough, you must not look back. Remember Lot's wife! Do not hesitate on the grounds that people will criticize you, or that your security will be endangered, or that you will lose something you value. It is much more harmful to stretch yourself to the point of action and then not to act, than the action itself could possibly be. If repeated too often, such wavering of the will destroys your capacity for action. You become neither hot nor cold, like the members of the church at Laodicea, of whom it is said that the Lord would "spew them out of his mouth." (Revelation 3:16.) And so, says our prayer, "God grant us the courage to change the things we can change," provided our rational mind tells us that change is needed and desirable, and within our competence.
On the other hand, suppose change is impossible? - or suppose we decide that change is not desirable at the present time or in the present context? What must we do then? Why, we must bow to the inevitable, and submit to conditions as they are, with as much grace as possible. "God grant me the serenity to bear the things I must." This is particularly difficult in our Western culture, when all the stress is placed on action and achievement, and where we pride ourselves on being able to manipulate our environment. For an active person to refrain from action, because in some particular situation action seems impossible or undesirable, requires considerable self-restraint. Even to submit to pain without protest, as I have seen cancer victims do, or to be always cheerful when confined to bed or a wheel chair, is extremely difficult; but it is the kind of thing which, if handled well, can bring the greatest rewards of spiritual growth. The same applies to unhappy human relationships which, after careful thought, we have decided to stay with and see through. "Submission" it is called. The pain or evil to which we must submit used to be thought of as "God's will," imposed upon us by our heavenly Father for our good. "It's my cross," people used to say. Well, it may be your cross, but I doubt whether it is "God's will," any more than the crucifixion of Jesus was "God's will." Pain and suffering are from hell, and in themselves are the very opposite of God's will. He only permits suffering if and when He sees that to annul it would cause worse problems, and in the long run worse evils, than to permit it. By way of illustration, a father takes his child to the dentist, not because he wants the child to suffer the dentist's drill or forceps, but because he knows that the alternative would, in the long run, hurt the child much worse.
So, if unavoidable suffering comes our way, the thing to do is to embrace it cheerfully, without anger, fear or resentment; then it will yield you wonderful dividends, whereas otherwise it would do you harm. Suffering does not necessarily benefit you, as some people seem to think. Spiritual growth does not come automatically out of suffering. If we resent it and cry out against it, and shake our fist at God, it will embitter us and do us spiritual harm. Self-pity is one of the most corroding of human emotions. The hypochondriac who is always telling you of his ill health and what he has to suffer, is reacting to his situation in entirely the wrong way. He is playing into the hands of the evil spirits from hell who want him to do just this, who are whispering into his inner ear: "Why has this trouble come to you? It isn't fair! You of all people don't deserve it! Be sorry for yourself! Tell everybody about it, and get their sympathy!" Self-pity is precisely what the evil spirits want to foster in us; they want us to "curse God and die." But you can defeat them by a complete change of attitude, making your sufferings stepping stones to heaven, instead of a greasy slope down to hell.
To the question: "How can I bear pain?" the answer might well be, "By not minding it so much!" Colonel Lawrence of Arabia used to puzzle his fellow officers in the mess by striking a match and letting it burn right out in his fingers. Others would try to imitate him, but when the flames reached their flesh they would cry out and drop the match-stick. They would ask him, "Where's the trick? How do you do it without hurting yourself?" He would reply, "The trick is, not to mind being hurt!" Don't allow yourself to be too conscious of your troubles. Worse things have happened before, and the world continues to rotate! Learn to relax. Tension is the wild animal's instinctive response to pain or fear; he is poised ready to plunge into the bush. But, if you have nowhere to plunge and cannot avoid what is coming to you, just relax and submit. Absorb the shock of the punches by going along with them, letting them come without resistance, pretending you are a bag of feathers.
Maybe we take ourselves too seriously, whereas a lighter touch would be more in keeping with our religious beliefs. Swedenborg tells us, in fact, that man is nothing but an empty vessel, with the power of choice as to what shall come into him. All our thoughts and desires come, not from ourselves, but from heaven or hell. They can do us good, or they can do us harm. A calm realization of this can neutralize any idea we might have, that we are too important to deserve to suffer, or, on the other hand, that suffering makes us important, that it is something to brag about! Pride is the basis of self-pity. It is pride that prompts us to boast to everyone how sick we are, and how much we are having to suffer. Think less of yourself and your own situation, and your health will immediately begin to improve.
Suppose you must live and work with somebody you don't like. You could leave him, obviously - you are a free agent; but you have decided not to leave him, for other important reasons. Very well; since this is the line you have decided to take, you must stop feeling angry and sorry for yourself on account of what you have to put up with. Stop chewing over in your mind how dreadful he is and telling your friends about it. Evidently you cannot alter this person's character - that is beyond your competence; but you can alter your attitude toward him. Look for some redeeming feature in his make-up, some positive element that you can go along with and enjoy; cling to this, and just close your mind to everything objectionable and painful and displeasing. If this is the bed you have decided to lie on, make yourself as comfortable as you possibly can!
This is the opposite of what we generally mean when we speak of someone "making a martyr of himself." The real saints suffered without seeming to suffer; they went cheerfully to their doom. A Roman Governor in one of the Provinces wrote to the Emperor and asked what he was to do with these Christians who did not seem to mind being tortured and put to death, who sang hymns of praise to their God with their very last breath. These people had conquered death, by following their Master and drawing on His resources of power. "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" So we, in our minor way, with probably much less serious problems, can be victors without doing a thing, merely by submitting serenely to those unpleasant things we cannot change, or that we have decided not to attempt to change.
Accept life gladly. Drink the cup to the dregs; accept even the dregs without bitterness. Don't take your own feelings too seriously, they are not all that important. And, whether the sun shines or the storm rages, remember you are in God's keeping. He will protect you from harm, if only you will accept His loving care and submit yourself to Him. "Commit your way unto the Lord, trust also in him. Cease from anger and forsake wrath. For the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace." (Psalm 37)