Charles Handy recalls a moment when philosophy and religion entwined in a way that would change his life for ever
I’ve always maintained that, within human organisations, managing your relationships with the people above you is as important as managing your relationships with those at the same level or below you. But I haven’t always been good at practising what I preach, as anybody reading my reports from Shell would testify. But my relationship with my last boss, some time ago now, was one of the most difficult.
To begin with, he was a bishop, which was an unusual situation for me. He was the Dean of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle and as part of his empire, I ran a most unusual think tank, which had no staff. Every weekend we would bring in 40 of some of the most prominent people in Britain, people at the heads of their businesses or institutions, to debate and discuss big moral issues of the time. Things like “What kind of growth is good?” or “Does all growth help?”, “Has freedom gone too far – should we police and regulate the Internet and social media, and if so, how?”
We passed no laws but in the discussions we educated each other, coming from our different positions, all of us of equal importance.
It was the insight of David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, that truth emerges from arguments between friends. I call the principle self-education by discussion. It works very well, it’s very exciting, it’s great fun, everybody enjoys it and everybody learns something.
But the day came when I had to have a big discussion with my boss, the bishop, about the future of my ingenious think tank. I had great dreams for it. I wanted to invite a group of 40 people from the next generation, people in their early 30s, at the start of their big careers. I would offer them accommodation in Windsor Castle so they could bring their partners, and live there for up to a month.
I thought they would add a new dimension to the debates, that each generation could inform and educate and learn from the other with their different perspectives, and that for the newcomers it would be a wonderful opportunity to make friends who would help them in their future lives. Plus it would add some more excitement to life in the castle.
My boss was not impressed. I couldn’t get him excited. Eventually he said, “I think we need some help here, so let’s go to the chapel and pray together.” And I thought, “Oh dear, he’s calling in God on his side – now I am done for.” So we went into St George’s Chapel, a magnificent place. It’s been there a very long time – the heraldic banners of the Knights of the Garter hang above the seats of the choir – and we sat above the altar, and he said the Serenity Prayer, as it’s called. It went like this:
“Dear Lord, grant to Charles your servant, the serenity to live with the things that cannot change, to have the courage to change what needs to change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Clearly he thought I didn’t have the wisdom to understand that the things I wanted to do were the things that cannot be changed because they involved a fundamental redevelopment of bits of Windsor Castle, which not only had been there for 2,000 years but was very much Her Majesty the Queen’s private residence, over which she exerted quite a lot of control. So I would have to make my case to her – not an easy task.
So in the end we agreed to postpone the discussions for another week. But when I left, I did some research – and I realised that the bishop had introduced me, through the Serenity Prayer, to the creed of the Stoic philosophy, which I was beginning to belong to.
It has changed my life, that prayer, and I commend it to you. This is how it goes again: “Dear Lord, grant unto me the serenity or the patience to live with that which cannot be changed, to have the courage to change what needs to be changed, and to have the wisdom to know the difference.” That is very much the Stoic creed – influence what you can influence with your values, but if you can’t, then have the resilience to live with what is inevitable. Don’t try to change what can’t be changed.
The Stoics believed that there is a benign force in the world, the logos, which, on the whole, directs the order of things in nature and in life. It’s sometimes called fate, or the system, or sometimes God. They believed we should learn to go with its flow and that everything would work out well provided we had the courage and patience to see it through and influence it when we could.
So I’m grateful to my boss for the lesson he taught me. And from then on, I kept my mouth shut unless I could see an opening where I could add value.
Of course, sometimes people fall into the trap of thinking their input is too small to be of any value and so they say nothing. Please don’t fall into this trap. As someone once said, the worse kind of person is one who doesn’t act because he thinks it’ll make so little difference: every little difference helps.
May I wish you all a serene weekend pondering your circumstances. Have resilience, only move when you can make a difference, however small.
With my best wishes,