Seek to Understand

Weekly Reflection, Sunday, August 2, 2020

By: Wally Stettinius

Years ago, I read The Magnificent Defeat by Frederick Buechner, an author who was frequently quoted by John Miller. In it, he describes life as two wars. The first is “The war of conquest. We fight to gain our place in the world – the battle against other men to get ahead.” The second is ”The war not to conquer but to become whole and at peace inside our skins…which involves the capacity to forgive and to will good not only for the self but for other selves….This is the goal for which power, success and security are only forlorn substitutes.”

His message for winning this second battle is giving up the need for control – he calls it “The Magnificent Defeat.” Having control is an important element to material success – many successful people are very controlling. In fact, they may have a need to be in control. I know that I have struggled with this.

This thinking led me to the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference, living one day at a time.

Accepting things that we cannot change means giving up control. How do we do this? It isn’t easy. For me, it has been to learn to live in the present and not worrying about the future. One of the things we most worry about as we age is what happens to us when we die. I think we need to accept that this is in God’s hands, and we have no control over it. This is where faith bringing peace comes in – that in dying we are born to a new life.

We are then faced with how we want to live in the present making the changes that we can. I find the answer to this in the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. We are, by nature, self-centered and motivated to meet our own wants and needs. The message in this prayer is to be other centered – Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. How to do this is described in detail – where there is hatred, let me sow love; injury, pardon; error, truth; doubt, faith; despair, hope; darkness, light; and sadness, joy.

This is obviously a huge challenge, and he goes on to describe how to do it – we need to seek to understand rather than to be understood, and to love rather than to be loved. If we can do these, the payoff is a huge paradox for it is in giving that we receive and it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

The critical skills here are open-minded listening combined with intellectual curiosity and an understanding of our own ignorance and limitations while suspending judgement. And genuine respect and concern for others and their opinions.

I present these thoughts not as accomplishments but as an aspiration for how I try very imperfectly to live my life.