“God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
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’s Serenity Prayer is a pretty famous supplication, one often recited and quoted even by those who don’t profess to be Christian. Most people know only the first part of the prayer. I meet very few people who actually even know that there is a second half (I myself don’t have the second half memorized), which is really a shame, since I think the latter half of prayer is just as pertinent for everyone – particularly for Muslims – than the former half, even with the evident Christian reference to Prophet Jesus (عليه السلام, “peace be upon him”). In fact, I think the reference to Prophet Jesus (عليه السلام) accentuates the entire message of the prayer itself, and as such, I want to briefly offer my cogitations on it.
Now, being a Muslim requires that I jettison claims of Jesus’s putative divinity, so I hope those who might be of the Christian persuasion, whether Catholic or Protestant, will bear with me, God-willing.
When I meditate on the life of Jesus (or really, any of the Prophets) as we know it through the canonical Gospels, particularly the Synoptic ones, my mind immediately zooms to the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم, not out of some endemic Muslim reflex, but because the similarities between the two are so striking. Both men lived in troubled times. Both men knew, very intimately, the reality of their situations. And more importantly, they understood their times, their people, their limitations, etc. Both these men were visionaries in a sense, but at the same time they also took the world for what it was at their respective times. In my feeble mind, I see the Prophets as realists who were courageous enough to take action in molding their realities to suit the visions which God had given to them. Hopefully this isn’t blasphemous thing to say.
This leads me to a question I’ve been asking myself since my conversion to Islam: should faith endow one with a sense of realism or a sense of idealism or a sense that is somewhere in between? In other words, when one comes to believe in something greater than one’s own self – no matter what the something is – should the energies that spring from this conviction cause one to look and act within the world for what it is or should it cause one to look and act within an image of the world molded by those convictions?
I think, for me, the answer lies less so in the latter and more so in the former: a cold, dark, but courageous realism tempered with faith, mercy, and a tiny bit of hope – not too much, just a little bit – like that Aretha Franklin song. Far too often I see Muslims – or Christians or Jews or whoever really – impose their irenic (and not so irenic) convictions on the world without realizing that the world, that human history, is not so malleable as to just accept such an imposition. I believe one should try (keyword: try) sculpt reality with their convictions to suit theirs convictions. In order to do this, you have to accept the ugliness and messiness of the world and human history for what it is. Otherwise, you’ll be forced in the other direction. Dr. Jackson once told me, “If you don’t move from the real to the ideal, reality will force you in the other direction.” I think he’s right. Nothing substantive is gained in the way of wisdom and understanding in white-washing and abstracting the gritty human elements from our being and our history save false hopes, poor assumptions, disillusions, and, to be candid, stupidity.
Perhaps it would behoove us who believe – and maybe even those who do not – to do as Niebuhr suggested. We should accept those things we can’t change and live each day in joy and with the hope (not too much!) that “all manner of things shall be well.” Moreover, we should have the courage to be visionaries (sensible ones) and to act as such, but we should also be wise enough to know that our visions can sometime be just that, mere voices, images, and shadows within our own minds.