Friday, December 03, 2004

The Importance of the Serenity Prayer

If you have ever delved into 12 step groups, Alcoholics Anonymous and similar Anonymous groups, you have heard the serenity prayer, "God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference". It is a good prayer for everyone to say every day.

It is, particularly, a good prayer to say at times of family conflict and family loss. I was describing just such an event in my family to a couple of women, one of whom is a psychologist. I told them how I had had to reach the decision that a certain family member could no longer live in my house. "Tough love" one of them said. The psychologist, who has dealt with problems of addiction many times, and I looked at each other. No, not tough love. The phrase "tough love" implies an attempt to control or manipulate someone else's behavior. No, it is a simple acceptance of the first phrase of the serenity prayer-- the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. I cannot make someone else stop using drugs. It is tempting to think that I can, because I certainly can make it more difficult, but, if the person is determined, I can't stop it. I cannot live someone else's life for him or her, 'though I might often think I would really do a much better job than he or she seems to be doing. But I can, by ushering that person to the edge of my life, control how his addiction affect my life.

The same is true for other losses. When a person you love has died, you cannot change it. You can review your own behavior interminably and come up with all sorts of scenarios in which that person would not have died and you can beat yourself up forever, but, before you engage in that exercise in futility and masochism, please re-read the previous paragraph again. You cannot, could not have, lived that person's life for him or her. He or she was making their own decisions. And chances are you know, in your heart of hearts that nothing you could have said or done would have changed the outcome.

It is very hard to accept that someone we love is lost to us. After the funeral is over, after the sympathy cards have stopped arriving, after the friends and well wishers have returned to their every day lives, we who have suffered loss find ourselves sitting alone. All the things we used to do to fill our days before that loss occurred, or most of them anyway, are still there to do. But those things, the shopping for the groceries, preparing for a birthday party, sending out Christmas cards, seem either meaningless, or even downright painful. How can I wish you a Merry Christmas when mine will be filled with feelings of longing and regret? It sometimes seems that it is the very biggest and most important events in our lives which are beyond our control and only the small and insignificant events that we have charge of.

So, we have to go ahead and send out the Christmas cards, because Christmas still comes and the rest of the living world is still here. We carry on with what seems to be our mostly insignificant lives because these are the things we can change. And yes, when you have suffered a great loss, even buying a Christmas tree and sending out cards and getting ready for Christmas takes courage.

For those who have recently suffered a loss, I can say, eventually the meaning comes back to those small acts. Eventually shopping for groceries becomes another small way you make your own or the lives of others close to you a little bit happier. Christmas cards become, again, a way to spread a little cheer. You learn to celebrate the milestone events of those you love who are still here with you and you even learn to savor those moments and to learn from your loss to treasure that which you have not lost, to hug the mother, sister, brother, son, daughter, cousin, niece who are here in your life and who love you and whom you love.

And so I return to the Serenity Prayer. God, please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, that some of my loved ones haved died early, that some people I love have chosen paths in life that separate them from me, the courage to change the things I can, to make my house a cheerful place, to be a helpful person in other peoples lives, to love those who love and care about me, and the wisdom to know the difference.

God Bless and Merry Christmas.

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