The Wisdom Prayer

Before I continue describing the power dynamics at play in the formation and evolution of language games, let’s take a break and just play one. Without any meta-analysis of the language game I am playing here (“sharing experiences of recovery”) I will just “make a move.”

My father joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1963, when I was two years old. We frequently recited the famous “Serenity Prayer” at the dinner table as I was growing up. Later, when I was twenty-three, I had the “honor” of following his footsteps on a path to recovery of my own. While supplicatory prayer to a deity is no longer part of my daily spiritual routine, I must have said the Serenity Prayer countless times in the first decades of my sobriety. Its most common (short) form is as follows:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer was originally written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. For understanding the nuances it helps to see a slightly longer version (also by Niebuhr) which reads:

God, give me 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.

I have decided that calling it “The Serenity Prayer” is a big mistake: it gives the impression that “serenity” is the main thing being asked for when in fact the crucial element is wisdom. When I know for a fact that something cannot be changed, it is easy to accept it. Likewise, when I am certain that my effort to change something will be rewarded with success, I jump right in without even considering the need for “courage.” But real agony sets in when I just don’t know whether I must accept something or I should work to change it.

And some of the worst suffering in my life has been when I was absolutely certain I couldn’t change something so I prayed and prayed for the serenity to accept it, to no avail. Meditation, formal rituals of surrender, “moving on” to other concerns: nothing worked. I always found myself back in the familiar anguished state of bewilderment, frustration, and despair. When one day it dawned on me that I might be wrong, I found the biggest obstacle to changing my view was the amount of energy I had invested in explaining to myself why I had no choice in the matter. For example, I had dropped out of college in 1983, about two thirds of the way through a B.S. in chemistry. I had long since moved on and made a decent career as an I.T. guy. I was working way more than forty hours per week; I had kids and a mortgage. Surely it was too late for the self-indulgence of going back to college? But the negative effects on my self-esteem took a toll over the years. Even I got tired of hearing my excuses and negative storytelling about how I had missed my chance. Knowing the difference between something that can be changed and something that can’t is wisdom, and it is what I needed.

The same thing applies to situations where I fought for years to change something, unwilling to accept that it was simply never going to happen. Serenity is great. Courage is great. But only wisdom can make the difference that ends suffering.

Power Context

Another crucial factor in the structure of language games is what I call the “power context.” As stated in earlier posts, language games are more than mere linguistic constructs: they involve people, and take as ‘givens’ many facts and values. The ‘play’ TrafficStopincludes activities and things in the real world. Every example of a language game I have presented also includes a power context: an unstated but inescapable configuration of relative powers of the participants. Sometimes the players are equal, but often not. To ignore the power context of a language game would be as absurd as doing astrophysics without considering gravitational fields.

Revisiting some of my earlier examples with this in mind:

  • In the operating room, the surgeon is giving commands, the assistant is responding to the commands, and the patient lies helpless on the table.
  • The police officer, with the full backing of the government, has power over the citizen in the traffic stop. The citizen has certain rights but would do well not to try to turn the tables by, say, reaching for a weapon.
  • At a wedding, the minister has been vested by the state with the power to perform the ceremony. The couple to be married stand as equals while the guests, except for one opportunity to voice an objection, are expected to tacitly lend their support.
  • In a chess tournament the individual players are considered equal and must comply with the instructions of the tournament director. The tournament itself may be conducted under the auspices of a chess federation. Participation is voluntary.
  • In a university chemistry research lab there is likely a hierarchy (professor and grad students, say). The game is played under the umbrella of not only the university, but also the chemistry profession and the greater scientific community. From another angle, the whole enterprise might be seen as an attempt to acquire the power over nature that scientific knowledge might impart.
  • In the farmers’ market the buyer and seller have different powers: the seller knows the “real story” of the produce, but the buyer has the money and free choice to walk away. A balance is presumably reached at the moment a deal is agreed to.
  • At the bank the internal auditor has great power over the manager being audited, although it could be the case that a rookie auditor is going up against a veteran senior manager. Presumably both are under the authority of a board of directors, while the banking industry is under the regulation of the government.
  • In a job interview the power context could vary: perhaps the job seeker is in dire financial straits and feels marginally qualified amongst a large number of applicants. In that case the power is with the interviewing manager. On the other hand, the position might be crucial to the operation of the company, may require a specialized skill set, and this candidate uniquely qualified. Depending on the length of the vacancy and the urgency of making the hire, the power may lie squarely with the candidate.
  • At the gym with a personal trainer, the client may feel subservient to the trainer — especially if the client is a beginner and out of shape while the trainer is super fit and experienced. On the other hand, the client is the one with the money and the trainer may be in the early stages of building their business, so it could be the opposite. Take a moment to consider a variety of factors and possibilities. Also, the power balance can certainly change over time.
  • Even in the example of the chapter in the chess book there are implicit power factors: the authority and reputation of the writer (grandmaster? coach? theoretician?), whether they utilized computer chess engines to analyze the variations, the strength of the examples from master practice, the willingness of the public to buy the book, the efforts of the publisher to sell it, the prospect of increased chess strength for the reader, etc.

Many language games exist for the explicit purpose of addressing and resolving power struggles, for example: court cases, business negotiations, philosophical arguments, politics, and, of course, chess matches and sporting events. But apart from the power struggles harnessed within language games (the internal combustion engines of society!), without the structuring of the games themselves by contextual power gradients outside of them they would have no sense or function at all.

Presupposed Values

In previous posts I emphasized that language games are necessarily finite, so they must make unquestioned use of certain background facts — among which are ‘values’, the inherent worth of certain things — in order to focus on the issues in play. Not to do so would lead to an endless cascade of preliminary meta-discussions interrogating every presupposition, running the risk of never getting to the topic at hand. (Plato’s dialogues offer many examples of language games falling backwards ad infinitum.) Here I offer a few more examples of language games and the presupposed values that are implicit in them.

  • A buyer and seller haggling over price at a farmer’s market.
    Presupposed values: the worth of money, the saleability of the produce, voluntary transactions, property rights, free market.
    In play: the factors affecting the value of produce, pros and cons of this particular produce, other opportunities available to both buyer and seller.
  • An internal auditor presenting findings and discussing recommended resolutions in a bank audit.
    Presupposed values: the rule of law, shareholder value, public reputation, performance evaluations (and the desirability of continued employment), effectiveness of internal controls.
    In play: the validity of specific findings, the effectiveness of particular remedies, the relative importance of various findings, the cost and practicality of specific remedies, fault-finding and blame.
  • Chapter in a chess manual about the Ruy Lopez opening.
    Presupposed values: playing chess itself worthwhile, being good at playing the opening in chess, durability into the middle- and end-game of opening advantages, validity of examples from games of masters.
    In play: soundness of specific lines, validity of this particular analysis, current assessments of key positions (opinions of top players), practical playability of specific lines.
  • Job interview.
    Presupposed values: good to have a job, looking good to the other party, compensated work, learning about each other, freedom to say “no,” looking for good fit.
    In play: honesty of both parties, appropriateness of fit, relevance and quality of specific items on resume, anticipated job duties of this position, personal qualifications and character.
  • Working out at the gym with a personal trainer.
    Presupposed values: fitness and health, avoiding injury, benefits of exercise, looking good, voluntary participation, professionalism, collaboration.
    In play: appropriateness of specific exercise for this client at this time, effort level, strategic goals and plan, etc.

The reader could have easily come up with these, and can no doubt come up with countless additional examples on their own. However, I hope these examples make it clear what I mean by “presupposed values”: they are not under discussion in the particular language game being played at the moment. To discuss them means stepping into a “meta” language game outside and prior to the current one.

I don’t believe it is possible to play a language game without the existence of presupposed values. For example, imagine the following statement in the blog of a person committed to “science and reason”: “Since this is a discussion based on science and reason, every effort will be made to keep statements ‘values-neutral’ and objective.” The irony is that the writer has just stated a value: specifically the value of “‘values-neutral’ and objective statements in a discussion committed to science and reason.” Nothing at all wrong here, except to point out that there is no “values-free.”