Friday, March 20, 2009

You Just Don't Get It, Billy

Silence can be so deafening. What's understood between the lines is often more to the point than what's actually written or spoken. Even now I am contemplating an intentionally furtive or ambiguous approach to this very entry so intent am I on putting my message between the so-called lines.

First of all, just what is it I don't get? Apparently, I don't get the viability or wisdom of doing nothing for someone I care deeply about in the face of intractably persistent mental illness and great suffering. But there is nothing wise, courageous or enlightened about inaction in such circumstances.

Many notable people have contemplated the dangers of inaction at moments of challenge:

  • Theodore Roosevelt: "In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing; the worst thing you can do is nothing."

  • John Stewart Mill: "A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury."

  • Norman Vincent Peale: "Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all."

  • Winston Churchill: "I never worry about action, but only inaction."

  • Meister Eckhart: "The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake."
At the very least, failure to advocate for a better solution simply because its adoption is unlikely or may cause discomfort, is a spineless capitulation to the forces of ignorance and fear. The allure of inaction is quite understandable, however, when one recognizes the fear that resorting to action will bring one hurt or pain, or elicit a hostile response. Indeed, we are usually clever enough to remind ourselves of those times in the past when our attempts at intervention, reason or intimacy were met with profane rejection and caused serious emotional pain. What comes to mind here is a slight variation of an old adage: Hurt me once, shame on you; hurt me twice, shame on me.

The goal in these circumstances should therefore be for us to evolve and mature enough to achieve insulation from the effects of anticipated abuse - not shrink from any unpleasantness doing the right thing might bring. Of course this is not at all an easy task given a lifetime's experience in dealing with precisely such hostility and unpleasantness.

There's an unlikely culprit, seemingly always at the ready, offering what is more often than not an excuse for the option of inaction. Reinhold Niebuhr's well worn Serenity Prayer is all too often invoked as a call to achieve the first of its three divine solicitations, the "grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed." As for the "courage to change the things that should be changed" as well as the "wisdom to distinguish the one from the other," these are plainly secondary considerations in the practical application of this prayer. In other words, when someone is touting the utility of the Serenity Prayer, often what he or she is really saying is, "Let it be. There is no point in even trying to do anything." It seems this prayer is seldom employed as a call to action born of courage, as if that option is really only there for show.

Also, it matters not that the Serenity Prayer is an appeal to a personal god. An appropriate secular interpretation can plainly be construed for the purpose of casting a favorable light on its essential meaning.

Maybe there are a couple of things my antagonists just don't get: First, that there is strength in numbers. A coordinated and cooperative effort to inject sober, loving and direct appeals would have a much greater likelihood of achieving a connection. Second, inaction is the worst option. Throwing in the towel on a loved one is inexcusable. Moreover, people sense when others have given up on them, and it only brings them loneliness and self-loathing, a sure recipe for hostility.

After all this, I am left to simply cogitate: Who is it that really doesn't get it?

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