“We are split personalities. We swear allegiance to one set of principles and live by another. We extol self-control and practice self-indulgence. We proclaim brotherhood and harbor prejudice. We laud character but strive to climb to the top at any cost. We erect houses of worship, but our shrines are our places of business and recreation. We are suffering from a distressing cleavage between the truths we affirm and the values we live by. Our souls are the battlegrounds for civil wars, but we are trying to live serene lives in houses divided against themselves” (Melvin Wheatley).
TO BE SERENE IS TO BE “UNAFFECTED BY DISTURBANCE.” Words like “calm” and “unruffled” describe the person who is serene, and calmness is surely an admirable thing. It’s a more valuable treasure than many of the things we spend our time pursuing so busily. “Serenity of mind and calmness of thought are a better enjoyment than anything outside of us” (Benjamin Whichcote).
But as Melvin Wheatley suggests in the quotation above, when we aspire to serenity but live in “houses divided against themselves,” we set ourselves up for disappointment. Even when we achieve a measure of outward serenity, if there still remains a conflict between “the truths we affirm” and the “values we live by,” we find that we can’t enjoy the external tranquility that surrounds us. As long as we’re at odds with ourselves, we’ll be at odds with everyone else, and until we find peace within our own hearts, we won’t find it elsewhere.
Yet the world around us is a distinctly unpeaceful place — disturbance and disruption seem to be the norm rather than the exception. And even within ourselves, we find it hard to maintain serenity for very long. Try as we may, our conduct sometimes falls below the standard set by our principles, and so our conscience is unsettled. In the world as it now is, there is no avoiding conflict either within ourselves or without. That being true, our confidence — and hence our serenity — must be based on something other than our own efforts at self-improvement or the ability of the human race to fix the brokenness of the world. Science can be helpful, and so can self-improvement. But if there is nothing more to help us than science and self-improvement, then frankly, there can be none of the peace we so deeply desire.
“All men who live with any degree of serenity live by some assurance of grace” (Reinhold Niebuhr).