This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of Roqueta, Menorca’s English language magazine.
“Don’t worry, be happy.”
Bobby McFerrin won a Grammy for the song with that title thirty years ago.
But there is more to the sentiment than a cheery little song, which seems to have had as its inspiration the Indian mystic and sage Meher Baba (1894–1969), who often used the expression, “Don’t worry, be happy” when cabling his followers in the West.
A long time ago, when I was about 12 or 13, I was getting ready to go to school in the morning when I heard a man on the radio talking about what a waste of time it is to worry.
He said, “Look, why worry? If you’re worried about something, and there’s something that you can do about it, you should do it. If you can’t do anything about it, then why worry? What difference will it make?”
I have always remembered that.
Years later, in the early 1980s, the rector of the Episcopal church that we had started to attend used to introduce his sermons every Sunday with a prayer that goes like this: “God give me the serenity to accept those things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
It’s the same thing, really, isn’t it? Or is it?
It’s called the Serenity Prayer, by Reinhold Niebuhr, and it has been so widely used and adapted that it is not easy to unearth the original.
Nowadays it has been adopted by just about every twelve-step group: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Since the Episcopal rector was not and never had been a member of a twelve step programme, I have always assumed that he came across it through some other route. It is an interesting way to begin to preach: it serves as a reminder to the preacher to focus on what can and should be done as well as uplifting the virtues of patience, tolerance, courage and wisdom.
Of course, there is more to Reinhold Niebuhr than just the Serenity Prayer. In 2008, then-senator Barack Obama named Reinhold Niebuhr as having deeply influenced his thinking.
In his writing, Reinhold Niebuhr emphasised the mixed and ambivalent character of human nature – creative impulses matched by destructive impulses, regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, the individual under constant temptation to play God to history. He summed up his political argument in a single powerful sentence: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
To be effective in the world, he said, we need, “a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us,” and, “a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of … our vanities.”
Clearly, Reinhold Niebuhr was writing as a Christian with a predominantly Christian community in mind. As such, he believed that the insights of religious faith were and are prerequisites for preserving and saving human civilisation. Equally, he expected the role of religion to be to foster a sense of humility. And in essence his Serenity Prayer is not just about serenity: there is a degree of humility required to acknowledge the limits of our own ability and the extent of our fallibility.
He regarded pride and self-interest as related sins. However, group pride, collective egotism, is a much more destructive form of self-interest. Groups can be much more arrogant, self-centred, and ruthless than individuals tend to be. The anonymity and collective power in a group will exert its influence over the competing interests of others. All groups are susceptible to this – including the church at times. Reinhold Niebuhr was often described as a pessimist for his thinking along these lines. Where is hope to be found if humans are individually motivated by self-interest and pride, and collectively empowered to ride roughshod over the needs of others?
This was his answer: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore we are saved by love.”
Reinhold Niebuhr himself was something of a visionary. He had deep sympathy for working class people, rooted in his Christian faith and encouraged by his knowledge of factory working conditions during the 1920s and 1930s while he was serving as the pastor of a church in Detroit. After visiting one factory, he wrote: “… manual labour is a drudgery and toil is slavery. The men cannot possibly find any satisfaction in their work. They simply work to make a living. Their sweat and their dull pain are part of the price paid for the fine cars we all run. And most of us run the cars without knowing what price is being paid for them. … We are all responsible. We all want the things which the factory produces and none of us is sensitive enough to care how much in human values the efficiency of the modern factory costs.”
Sadly, that could well be written about almost any of the home comforts that we in the west enjoy in today’s world. We consume without thinking about the true cost of what we consume, and who pays it. This is where we need wisdom and courage to discern whether we can indeed make a difference.
“Don’t worry, be happy,” is in fact an incomplete, insufficient mantra for a world in which we cannot plead ignorance, even if the truth is often distorted and clouded by devious interests. So, while wrestling with the challenges and imperfections of the world around us, and the risks and fears that press upon us, it might be worth holding up the words of Reinhold Niebuhr as a touchstone and a guide. Oh – and for those who profess not to be religious, or spiritual, try it without the religious attributes. It still works!
Here is the full version of his prayer:
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. Amen.