In the 1930s the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote what has come to be known as the Serenity Prayer. The shorter form of the prayer focuses our attention on things beyond and within our control: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” The rest of the prayer is often left out but is worth noting: “Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next.”
Serenity, the prayer’s wisdom suggests, lies in accepting what is beyond my control and working on that which is within my control. But knowing the difference between the two is not something that comes easily. Often in life we spend so much of our time trying to control things that simply cannot be controlled. And we totally ignore the things that only we can control. Tending to things we cannot do anything about leads to spiritual destruction. Not tending to the things that only we can tend to leads to physical destruction.
The times in life when big things are going on that are totally beyond our control are the times when we are most likely to feel stuck and come to think we have no options. We are so thrown by the big things we cannot control that we abdicate all responsibility for the things we actually can do something about.
If you’ve just been given a serious diagnosis, it’s easy to feel like nothing you do will make any difference. If your spouse is in a really bad place, it’s easy to think that your own behavior doesn’t matter. If you’ve lost your job and your finances are in a mess, it’s easy to keep living like the money won’t run out. The more we are thrown for a loop by things beyond our control, the more difficult it is for us to make healthy choices. We get anxious and paralyzed.
The Serenity Prayer invites us to assess our situations honestly and accept the situation we are in. “I am diabetic.” “I have congestive heart failure.” “My spouse has a mental illness.” “My son is an alcoholic.” “I don’t have enough money to maintain my current lifestyle.” “I am depressed.” “The path I am on is killing me.” That’s where we start, honestly admitting what we are facing. We want to ignore it, deny it, pretend it will get better. But admitting what is real, what we cannot change, is the way to start. Until we admit the way things are, our situation saps all our energy. When we face reality, energy is freed up. Awareness disarms anxiety.
With that new energy we can begin to deal with the tough details of our situation. Before we admit the exact nature of our lives, no options seem possible. Acceptance of what is beyond our control, however, helps us see what is within our control.
A good exercise when we feel stuck is to consider all the options that might be available. It helps to begin with the options we know won’t work and claim them as possible courses of action. If I don’t have enough money it might actually help me to think of crazy options: “Well, I could rob a bank.” Just naming crazier options helps remind me that there are choices I can make. I begin to empower my own ability to choose rather than the situation which threatens to kill me. The viable options begin to emerge.
The second part of the Serenity Prayer, the one that is often left off but talks of accepting hardship and being reasonably happy forms an important background for seeing our options. Sometimes we are so threatened by not being able to be perfectly happy that we don’t pursue reasonable happiness. If we can’t be rich or perfectly healthy or have the ideal marriage, we may be tempted just to give up. But peace and serenity are discovered by accepting limits and living within them. Being happy, the saying goes, is not about having what you want but wanting what you have. When I can admit my disappointment about living in a world that is not yet perfect, then I can find a life that is good enough. Then I discover that God takes care of me in this world that often does not take care of me. Then I discover that I can even care for myself.
Whatever our situation, feeling stuck and thinking I have no options is just part of living. Just admitting that I am in a really hard place and that 99% of it is beyond my control helps me look differently at the 1% that is. And it helps me see the kind generosity of God that reaches out to me in my hardship.
The peace of the Lord is always available to us. That peace allows us to find options where we thought there were none.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Goodbye to Fay Worrilow
Fay, our Parish Secretary the past 26 years, is retiring the end of May. If you would like to contribute to a monetary gift to be presented to her when she retires, please contact Libby Poole, our Financial Administrator (email@example.com or 262-1937). Mark your gifts for Fay Worrilow. Thanks, Fay for your great work among us.