Transformation is Never Complete

A chance online encounter with the history of The Serenity Prayer led me to read a bit about Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr, the author of the prayer. Niebuhr wrote the prayer in 1951, long after he began his career as a noted theologian. Based on what I read about the man, his religious philosophies and corresponding social and political philosophies transformed over the years from an intensely progressive, left-leaning position to a much more moderate one. In some cases, the transformation was essentially an about-face, rejecting beliefs he had once held in favor of embracing ones he had once rejected. This may be an over-simplification; I did not read a biography, I read only a brief biographical sketch. At any rate, his mind changed in response to both thought and experience. And that’s where my mind is going on this brutally cold morning (15° now, aiming for a high of 18°).

We can change our minds. Our philosophies can morph into almost unrecognizable twins, their common genealogy recognizable only through meticulous study. Given enough thought and consideration of other approaches to thought and analysis, we can become different people: same bodies, same faces, same histories, but different minds. Yesterday’s expected but deeply disappointing acquittal of Trump notwithstanding, there was evidence that some people who had supported him in the past had changed their minds. Presented with enough evidence and analysis, their perspectives on the man and his actions changed. Those perspectives could not have changed without changes in their own philosophies. While I cannot know their minds, I can reasonably surmise they examined their past support, the evidence presented against the man, and weighed their own morality against the actions of the past President. They changed their minds. Seven Republican Senators, some of whom had already crossed the threshold from support of party to support of country, voted to convict him.

Even Mitch McConnell appeared to have changed his mind, in spite of his vote to acquit. He claimed the trial was contrary to the Constitution, so he had to follow the Constitution. He suggested (almost emphatically), had it taken place while Trump was still in office, he would have voted to convict. Yet the Senate had already voted to acknowledge the legitimacy of convicting a person who was not longer in office, contrary to McConnell’s claim. And McConnell, himself, had effectively refused to consider holding the trial before January 20, thus assuring the trial would take place after Trump left office.  I think McConnell recognized the changes taking place in people’s minds with respect to Trump’s actions; McConnel did not change his mind, he simply changed his tactics, paying close attention to which way the wind blows.

So, some people change their minds, some people change their modi operandi in an effort to appear to have changed their minds. So, what does all this have to do with the changes that took place in Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr’s philosophies? The connections are tenuous, at best, threaded together only in my mind. I contend, without evidence, that Niebuhr might have written The Serenity Prayer whether or not his religious philosophies had changed. The changes that took place in the seven Republican senators did not necessarily alter their fundamentally conservative outlooks; while they changed, they did not change completely. And that, I suppose, is where my convoluted thinking is going this morning. The first verse of The Serenity Prayer (which is the one most often quoted) is, in my opinion, a brilliant summation of practical realism. Whether God represents an all-powerful deity or the universe in which we live, it’s the encouragement to accept both our abilities and our limits that’s attractive about the words, I think. Here’s the first stanza:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

Well, that wasn’t what I expected to write when I got up this morning. I anticipated writing about morality and how people see the concept differently, depending on perspective and context. Specifically, I anticipated exploring the conflicts between morality as “taught” in homes and schools and churches and morality as internalized in individuals. For example, a person who has learned that marital infidelity is immoral, and who believes it, can still engage in that “immoral” act. How can he or she resolve that conflict? I contend that people convince themselves that extenuating circumstances both explain and permit stepping beyond what otherwise would be considered absolute boundaries. It’s not just marital fidelity. It’s breaking the “Golden Rule.” It’s accepting the death penalty, even in the face of a deep-seated belief that murder is fundamentally wrong. It’s stealing, in spite of taking the moral position that stealing is absolutely wrong.

Yeah, I had those things on my mind. But I’m not going to write any more about them this morning. I may, instead, leave this blog and return to my Word documents that house short stories and vignettes and other “creative” stuff that might get my creative juices flowing. Even though the temperature is not conducive to writing. Perhaps I would feel warmer if I would trade my flip-flops for something warmer. I’ve noticed that, even though I am wearing sweat pants and a sweat shirt, I am cold; especially my feet. I’ve transformed from being warm and comfortable in my bed to being warm and comfortably down to my feet. The transformation is never complete until I put something warm over my toes. I wish I could be comfortable this morning in flip-flops; they make me happy. But I’ll bow to pressure from the atmosphere and cover my feet with something a tad warmer. And drink more coffee.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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