Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Reinhold Niebuhr, 1926
First off, is that an ornate belfry or what?!! Wow! This bell tower sits atop the San Tomas church in Haro, a town in northern Spain. And I just gotta say, it would be one lucky shrink who was allowed to live up there! After all, Haro is known for producing very fine red wine, and the weather is said to be quite nice. Wonder if there are any bats hanging out in there?
Moving on, it’s time to tackle the rest of the serenity prayer. In my view, the second half of the prayer, reprinted above, simply gives color and detail to the first portion, which we’ve looked at in the last two posts. But, again, my opinion is that this prayer serves as a very elegant picture of good mental health; that is, living in a mentally healthy manner. And as such, both parts of the prayer are necessary to paint that picture for us.
So what do we see? Well, first off, as this post’s title indicates, a major key is that life is best lived one day at a time. Interestingly, as many of you may know, the “one day at a time” phrase drawn from this prayer has been a widely-used motto of encouragement within AA and other recovery groups for decades. As many old-timers within AA will tell us, that motto has helped innumerable members of their fellowship to remain sober when stressful winds picked up, and cravings seemed unbearable and irresistible. Just getting through 24 hours sober can be a doable task when you realize that you don’t have to do the whole rest of your life all at once. Just one day. As Jesus said, let’s deal with today’s concerns today, and let tomorrow take care of itself. Seems like a healthy approach to me.
Actually, though, the point is not so much that we are to live one day at a time. This is really just Niebuhr’s way of calling us to stay in the present. This is illustrated further with the very next line, “enjoying one moment at a time”. As we live, a ‘moment’ is actually not a defined unit of time. It signifies the present, without really assigning any particular or specific time length to it. A moment, to me, refers to events, thoughts, encounters, choices, things people say to us, things we say to others, things that happen in our lives. And in those present moments is really where our “mental health” is tested. We are, at any given “moment” either mentally healthy, or, in varying degrees, we are not.
Please don’t overlook the word, “Enjoying”. Easy to do so. We may actually want to overlook it. How does one ‘enjoy’ every moment of one’s life? I’m not sure anyone ever has. But, within the context of this prayer, perhaps it is possible. Again, partly dependent on “God“, partly dependent on my own attitude. Trusting, positive, never letting our expectations of life get too high, never thinking too much of ourselves, seeing life as a grand adventure that will NEVER destroy us. If we do those things, and really look forward to whatever might come next with excitement and anticipation, then life can be enjoyed one moment at a time. It really can happen.
The next line is hard. “Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace.” A very simple and easily understood phrase. The question it leaves unasked is also very easily understood. Can we truly accept the stress? Can we accept frustration? In some cases, even in our modern world, can we accept illness, fatigue, loss, heat, cold, rain, floods, storms, drought, pain, fire, war, bankruptcy, injustice, abuse, death? Can we? Will we? I am certainly in no position to answer, having been largely sheltered from most of these things in my own journey, thus far. But, as the author of the prayer states, hardship, if accepted and not cursed, is a path to being at peace in one’s core, at peace with life, at peace with the Giver of all good things. If we are prepared for it beforehand, I believe we can accept hardship, and even welcome it. Doesn’t mean it has to be our friend, but we certainly can always ask of it, what would you teach me? What can I learn from you?
“Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.” As one reads through the Gospels of the New Testament, one is struck by how Jesus did not try to proclaim His message to all the folks within His reach. In fact, He often demanded of those whom He healed to keep quiet about the miracles He had given them. Several times there were seeming opportunities to wield dramatic change in many around Him, including any number of persons who were highly skeptical, those in leadership positions, those who often abused and oppressed others, but He seemed bent on revealing Himself only to those whose hearts were open, were truly needy, were humble and contrite; i.e., the “poor in spirit”. As for those whose pride and power were too blinding, Jesus seemed to simply “pass”, and move on. So, following His example: Taking the world as it is, and letting go of my own hopes and dreams for the people around me, the “world” as I would have it. Again we come back to that powerful concept and drive: Control. Are we in a place to set it down, to lay it aside, to let it go? Are we ok with others being different from us in any number of ways? Are we ready and willing to meet any other person where she or he is, and not immediately and automatically “sizing them up”, judging and categorizing every person we encounter? If we are, then we are taking and accepting the world as it is. A very healthy stance.
The last few lines are the key to being able to do all that is laid out in the preceding lines. We must … 1) trust in God to take good care of us, and “make all things right” in God’s own timing, as we 2) surrender to God’s will; This is very hard. We were all raised to follow our own path. We have all been taught that we are the ones responsible for ourselves. We are “in the driver’s seat!” But … do we have to be? Must we be the ones always deciding, usually quickly and in a hurry, about goals, destination, directions, route, speed, maintenance, etc., etc.? Or, is it ok, and perhaps a much better way to live, to yield to that soft inner voice when it’s telling us to hold on, to wait, to allow God’s wisdom to flow into us, to patiently pause until a clearer direction is laid on our minds? Is it ok, and perhaps much better, to allow for serenity to envelop us when hardship and frustration arrive, or to allow courage to move and stir us to action when we’d rather just whine and complain, to speak up about injustice, in our life or others’?
I think it is far better to trust and surrender, to wait and be right and peaceful, than to react and either create more trouble, or to do ourselves and all others around us absolutely no good, since we “always know what is best”. It’s a tough dilemma, mostly because we are unaccustomed to yielding to any other way than our own. And, despite the fact that we’ve seen for as many years as each of us has been alive that when we are following our own will exclusively, more often than not we are on collision course with other people and other forces, we still hurtle on, head down, bent on stubbornly pushing our own agenda, whether that is to rush in and run roughshod, or to aggressively pull away, isolating and quarantining ourselves into our own little prisons where no one can hurt us, and no one can be helped by us. May God grant us the grace necessary to allow His wisdom, His serenity, and His courage to move in our lives, trusting in God, surrendered to the Higher will, knowing that all things will work much better if and when we do! All will be better, all will be more peaceful, all will be more joyful, all will be happier.
Will we have it, though? One day at a time will tell … join me in trying, please.
Craig Meek, M.D.