To say the least and the obvious, 2020 hasn’t been the kind of year I imagined it would be. On New Year’s Eve 2019, as I looked toward the possibilities and challenges of the year ahead, I didn’t see what we’re now experiencing. Sure, like a lot of other people, I knew that the November election would be crazy-making and democracy-testing, but I don’t think anyone knew that it would take place in the midst of a pandemic virus, a faltering economy, and an overdue reckoning on racism and criminal legal reform. In the last quarter of this difficult year, the United States faces interlocking crises, the sum of which feels, not just urgent, but existential.
More personally, I didn’t envision that a variety of health problems would consume nearly twenty weeks (not consecutive, thankfully) of the year, leaving me with very little physical and emotional energy. I was necessarily but frustratingly disengaged from a lot of things I care about. I felt fragile and disheartened. Over the last couple of weeks, gladly, some strength and stamina are reemerging.
I remembered recently reflections theologian Reinhold Niebuhr offered on what he had learned from illnesses that forced him to pull back from his busy life of teaching at Union Seminary, advocating for a variety of national and international justice issues, and speaking in college chapels and local churches. A stroke and other problems reduced the range of his work and made him face, for the first time in his life, enforced “inactivity and helplessness.”
The reflections are in “A View of Life from the Sidelines,” published by The Christian Century in 1984, but written in 1967, when Niebuhr was 75 years old and seven years past retirement from Union. I was surprised, when I read the article in 1984 and when I revisited it this year, by how openly he admitted his struggles, not just with physical limitations, but also with three extended bouts of depression. He learned from his consultations with psychiatrists “who combined clinical experience with wisdom and compassion that the chief problem was to reconcile myself to this new weakness.”
Niebuhr had a finely-tuned sense of irony, and he didn’t fail to notice how ironic it was that he had written a prayer which came to be widely-circulated and deeply-valued. Known to many as “The Serenity Prayer” of Alcoholics Anonymous, his original phrasing of it was: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” As Niebuhr worked to integrate his “new weakness” into his self-understanding, this prayer became even more immediately personal for him.
His prayer guides me in my own circumstances. I’ve been slow and stubborn about “accepting the things that cannot be changed.” Only recently has there been anything like “serenity” in facing the truth that my life has less scope than I thought it would have in my mid-60s; that I’m more vulnerable and dependent than I have wanted to be; and that some of my hopes and dreams won’t be realized. I’m seeking to make wiser decisions about what to do with the time and energy I do have. Given what I can do, what will I do?
This year has taught us what we could have already learned: we can’t predict or control what will happen. What we can do is summon the courage to respond to what happens with grace. Even from the sidelines, we can resist harshness—toward ourselves and toward others—and extend compassion. We can refuse to let false and oppressive stories define us and one another, stories about racial superiority and inferiority, about self-worth’s being dependent on net worth, and about the possibility of individual thriving divorced from communal flourishing. We can recommit to the kind of justice that flows from mercy and results in peace. We can practice truthfulness (including, minimally, factualness) for the sake of love and of the common good. We can respect, care for, and learn from one another.