Saturday, June 8, 2013

Book review: The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Being in a season where I am re-evaluating my service to the church, I picked up this book last month at my local Cokesbury store's closing sale. (RIP Cokesbury brick-and-mortar stores.)
Flanagan's premise is to explore the facets of the oft-quoted Serenity Prayer, specifically: to accept what cannot be changed, to change what can be changed, and to have the wisdom to know the difference between the two situations. Her book relates the stories of a number of people whose lives embody one or more facets of the prayer, and provides commentary on what they have learned over the years.

I confess to almost not making it out of the first chapter, the weakest part of the book. Here Flanagan makes a number of sweeping general statements about the way things are in the world, and why they are that way. She bases her statements on statistics and studies that she never  sources, either in the text itself or in footnotes. In this age of massive political spin permeating so much of what we hear, watch and read, attribution is critical. One cannot get away with statements like, "numerous studies have shown...," "most psychologists agree...," or "in one study, researchers learned..." without the careful reader immediately asking him or herself, "Which psychologists? What studies? Funded by who?" The lack of attribution immediately raises suspicion about Flanagan's agenda; it would have been easy to fix these omissions. Unless, of course, Flanagan was just being sloppy and vaguely remembering that some study somewhere had made her point for her.

Fortunately, once Flanagan starts introducing her protagonists, the sweeping statements fade to the background.

Christians reading the book must take into account that Flanagan is a Quaker, and brings that group's practices, thought and quirks into her writing. Some may be disappointed in her ecumenical embrace of wisdom found in non-Christian religions. This didn't bother me very much except in her sometimes references to "the wisdom of the universe," which I felt was going a bit too far. Others may tire of the frequent references to AA and other 12-step programs. Given the subject of the book and the role the Serenity Prayer plays in these programs, I did not find the time spent here was wasted.

Flanagan is at her best when talking with the interviewees and summarizing what they have learned through their experiences. It is in these passages that she makes her most important, and most helpful points.

While the book is unevenly written, it contains enough actual wisdom to make it a worthwhile read. I profited from what I learned, often in unexpected flashes of recognition and solidarity with the situations of those profiled. I suspect most readers will mine enough gems to make their time with Flanagan worthwhile. But I also expect what each reader gains from the book will be different, as some of us need to accept, some of us need to get up the courage to change, and we all need wisdom to navigate our particular circumstances.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference, by Eileen Flanagan
ISBN 9781585428298

No comments: