Mulling over the Senate’s health care reform vote this morning and wondering if I would truly be forced to reject a social reform I have spent my entire adult life supporting, I found some consolation and common good sense this morning e-thumbing via iPhone through the New York Times opinion section. In it this morning you’ll find a measured and rational defense of his House amendment extending the existing social contract of the Hyde Amendment from Bart Stupak (“What my amendment won’t do”) and another exercise in rational over wishful thinking from Thomas Friedman in a good-humored call for the application of the precautionary principle to climate change. Friedman so succinctly captures the virtues of that argument for intervention in the face of purloined-email-enhanced climate change skepticism his piece should be laminated and attached to foreheads throughout Denmark, or at least turned into a talking points memo somewhere (“Going Cheney on Climate”). I also found a column I’d missed a few days ago: Cardinal Mahony neatly capturing all the common goods that pertain to a generous and wise extension of health care reform to include undocumented immigrants and their access to unsubsidized coverage for preventive care (“Coverage without borders”). Sadly this compelling argument is apparently not even part of the discussion in the reform debate this week.
Amidst the wise opinioning, I found something else, too. A while back the Times had covered the story of the confirmation of the authorship of the so-called serenity prayer, put to work most often these days among folks battling addiction. Most now accept that the prayer was actually authored or at least codified by Reinhold Niebuhr and today’s Times included a letter from Niebuhr biographer Richard Fox, who wrote:
Putting the spotlight on Niebuhr’s authorship (whether he was the sole “originator” of the prayer or the major “codifier” of fragments already floating in the homiletic air) may help redirect attention toward the social Gospel meaning the prayer conveyed to Niebuhr and his many liberal disciples — even after their radical hopes of the early 1930s had dimmed.
They were still seeking, in an era of lowered expectations for new political departures, the “courage to change” unjust social conditions as well as individual hearts.
It’s an interesting notion to return what has become something of a cliche of the era of personal affirmation, the serenity prayer—“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”—to its apparent original purpose as a small consoling mantra for people engaged in the frustrating task of social change, particularly in the face of the terrible paradox of the health-care reform hijacking happening before our eyes this week. It’s not a bad reminder for many of us who are tempted to surrender to despair in the face of such contradictions and the wearing difficulties of other struggles to protect or extend human dignity and affirm the spiritual and practical worth of the common good. I don’t see it as a white-flag muttering before forces larger than ourselves, but a daily opening to a step back, a restorative breath, and a small reminder that we are in this for the long haul. Defeat or victory will not be measured out by weekly congressional tallies.