The Wisdom to Know

God grant 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.
–Reinhold Niebuhr

Here’s a disclaimer, right up front: serenity is not a quality I have generally understood, nor have I actively sought serenity in my daily life. I offer this truth, not as a self-criticism or as some kind of humble brag. I just wish to make it clear at the outset that I don’t know much about serenity.

That said, I’ve been thinking about the serenity prayer quite a bit lately. Not so much the serenity part, but the acceptance, courage, and wisdom parts. Each of us may decide for ourselves whether we are blessed or cursed to be living in these “interesting times”; for my part, it feels important to wonder if I am responding as my best self. Acceptance, courage and wisdom play a huge role in that assessment.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

I am an Idealist. Even as a child, adults were often hurling this word at me as if it were an epithet: “You’re such an idealist!” It became a phrase I hated. Once I understood what the term meant, I was confused about why people seemed to think it was a bad thing. It came as no surprise when, in graduate school, I studied the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator and found myself to be an INFP – the Idealist. All of this is background so you will understand when I say I have trouble with this line of the serenity prayer. My brain looks at the world and struggles to find things that I cannot change. So far the list is minimal: weather, in the short-run (over the long run, climate change suggests that I can have, for good or ill, an impact on weather); someone else’s choices (though I can impact the circumstances, opinions, feelings that may guide those choices)…Ok, let’s face it – I just don’t think there are things I cannot change!

This goes deeper than a personality preference. If I believe (and I do) that we are all connected, then it behooves me to take a long view of  change. The ripples I send out into the world (my actions, my thoughts, my being) effect change – whether I see or comprehend their impact is almost irrelevant. Of course, I take the most pride and pleasure in having a visible, measurable impact for the good. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m aware that sometimes I have a negative impact as well. This does not make me proud.)

Acceptance of the things I cannot change, then, becomes more about accepting that I will never single-handedly change society or culture in a manner that is immediately operational. Institutional racism, for example, will only change if many people like me act in concert and with good will to create change then continue to act in ways that support and institutionalize equality. Learning to accept that change is both possible and occurring, even when it is imperceptible to me, is as close to finding serenity within the context of this line as I am likely to get.

…the courage to change the things I can…

I admire courage. Whether it is evidenced by someone acting on their convictions, taking a chance on the untried/unknown, or putting themselves between another person and harm I try to recognize and support courage when I see it in action. But I, myself, am a bit on the cowardly side. For most of us, courage is not a response we can plan in advance; it is too easy to reason ourselves off the hook. When we do act with courage, more often than not we are moved to act by immediate circumstances unfolding around us.

But the serenity prayer isn’t speaking to that kind of “in the heat of the moment” courage. It is talking about the courage to face our own weaknesses; the courage to stand in our truth day after day, even if/when no one stands with us; the courage of our convictions that “there is a right thing I must do” regardless of the cost. I am sometimes called to speak truth to power, but often find it difficult to do the speaking – much like being unable to scream in the midst of a nightmare, fear of the possible repercussions interferes with my courageous expression. This line of the serenity prayer calls me to find my voice and make it be heard anyway.

Speaking of finding my voice, there is also the courage required to be a broken record in service to justice. To consistently call on the “better angels” (as Lincoln put it) of our nature to heal and to forgive and to forge new understanding requires tenacity and commitment. At a time when it is fashionable to use the phrase “social just warrior (SJW)” as a pejorative, the courage to walk this path daily is often unrecognized or unwelcome – yet absolutely necessary for change.

And so I pray for courage.

…and the wisdom to know the difference.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom,” says Confucius. “First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Whatever of actual wisdom we gain via these methods is precious. Like the proverbial pearl of great price, not only have we paid dearly for it, but it can be lost to us if we do not treasure it and if we do not use it.

Proverbs (4:6-7) tells us: “Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” Wow. That bears repeating:

“Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”

So wisdom is more than self-knowledge, deeper than experience. It is nothing less than gaining understanding – which requires these things, but also empathy and compassion. There is no wisdom that is merely self-referenced. No wonder wisdom feels both so important and so difficult to attain.

Given all of these musings, is it any wonder I’ve been unable to get this darn prayer off my mind? So much for serenity!

Look, I’m not the kind of idealist who expects perfection; but I am an idealist who believes that whatever better future we imagine is possible. I’m not sure I need to find serenity at the cost of choosing which change is possible, because what is possible is always changing. I am willing to concede that there are limitations to my ability to change the world, to change systems, to change minds or hearts. But these limitations are not limitations of possibility but of imagination and they are made less possible when I cower rather than act with courage. I believe that courage is a muscle that can be made stronger through repetitive use – whether I stand, speak or take a knee to express what I hold as truth, what I value.

All of it, always, returns to wisdom. Knowing how and when to act, whether speech or silence is most needed, how to exercise your courage so that it is strong when you – and the world – need it most…wisdom is the generator of true discernment. And if in gaining wisdom any of us find a modicum of serenity as well, may we be blessed by it.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”                                         –Abraham Lincoln


September Skies

                  The last ray of sunshine illuminates a railroad crossing arm.


Last night I went for a walk. There were storm clouds massing overhead, but the sunset was still pushing through every opening in the cloud cover it could find. Consequently, the urban farm down the street was enveloped in shadowed twilight, while the factory across the street was lit dramatically, looking like a shining city of legend.

It has been a dry September, despite the clouds that have regularly gathered. There have been spectacular sunsets due to both the clouds and smoke haze in the atmosphere from the fires out west. One Sunday a few weeks ago, our skies took on a greenish tinge and a strange opacity  despite weather instruments reading “mostly sunny”. I couldn’t help but think how frightening it must be in places closer to the flames.

Last September was the opposite – so wet that this week in 2016 we were on flood watch, followed by the evacuation of parts of town at the end of the month (including my neighborhood). A Herculean effort by residents and city workers prevented a massive disaster, though my apartment has never quite returned to its pre-evacuation state. (Due to my lack of initiative, not to any flooding – the place remained dry throughout!)

I’ve been thinking about the ways this September mirrors so many other Septembers in my life. Always, after the rush of August, I look toward September with a hopefulness that is rarely born out – I think September will usher in a slower pace, an expanse of time to enjoy a brief pause between late summer and the start of fall. But it never works that way. September is always a frantic blur. This year has been no exception.

The one consistency I’ve enjoyed from year to year is the changeable skies September brings. The blue-est blues, the most colorful clouds, the most dramatic sky-scapes. Often, September skies are the only natural phenomenon I get to experience fully in this month of effort and hurry.

Sometimes, that is enough.

Of Being

I know this happiness

is provisional:

the looming presences —

great suffering, great fear

withdraw only

into peripheral vision:

but ineluctible this shimmering

of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness

widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,

this need to kneel:

this mystery:

—Denise Levertov


An Awakening

“An awake heart is like a sky that pours light.”  –Hafiz


I have this memory from when I was around six years old. It is early summer, and I have awoken very early in the morning. My siblings and my parents are sleeping but the sun, just up, is shining and its warmth is beginning to lift the dew from the grass, forming a hazy ground fog over the yard. I am still in my bed, but the top half of my body is actually wedged onto the window sill, my face pressed against the screen. The yard, the bluff across from the one we live on, the trees I can see on hills across the Mississippi – all of it – is kissed by the sun and beautiful.

I can smell the fresh morning air, with its commingling of flowers in bloom, the river, grass and a darker scent I always associate with air emanating from the old lead mine tunnels bored through the limestone bedrock of my hometown. I hear a door close, keys in a lock, and whistling. My grandfather comes into view, leaving his basement apartment and walking along the narrow sidewalk through our yard, up the cement stairs and to the car park, on his way to work at the meat packing plant. He disappears from my view as suddenly as he appeared. It feels strange that he has no knowledge of my gaze or the love I feel for him.

I stay like this, laying in the window for several minutes. I am aware of my sleeping family in their own beds in the dark interior of the house not knowing that I am awake and watching the world. I am self-contained yet connected to everyone and everything. This feels illicit, somehow – this awareness of a world that is not aware of me.

This luminous memory has remained fresh for fifty years. I’ve thought about why often over the years. Nothing in particular happened. There have certainly been other mornings when I was awake while others slept; many mornings that I enjoyed quiet before the rest of the world got busy and choked the place up with noise. And while it may have been the only time I was awake early enough to watch my grandpa go to his very early shift at the plant, I doubt that is why the experience struck me so deeply.

Perhaps it was the first time I felt connected to everything I was looking at without being the center of it.

I looked up children’s stages of self-awareness and found the following stage-theory, in which a child’s response to a mirror is used to describe each stage:

“That, right there, is self-awareness in a nutshell: that’s a mirror (Level 1), there’s a person in it (Level 2), that person is me (Level 3), that person is going to be me forever (Level 4), and everyone else can see it (Level 5).

Queue your five-year-old’s first existential crisis.”

I was definitely a kid who had a difficult time with that level 5 self-awareness. Being “seen” was excruciating for me. In photos I am often contorting my face in an effort to avoid looking directly at the camera, as if this would somehow make me less visible to the lens.

At the same time, I had a child’s lack of awareness that everything wasn’t about me. If my parents fought, if my sister was cranky, if it rained on the day I wanted a picnic – these all seemed to be about me. And, if I’m honest, there have been many times throughout my adult life I’ve had to shake myself out of this kind of self-referencing. (Just yesterday, a colleague’s demeanor changed dramatically during a meeting and several of us sought her out, afterwards, thinking we must have said something to upset her – she was suffering from a sudden-onset migraine. I guess this is a human tendency, not just mine.)

Back to that long-ago morning, that sense of connection without direct attention (or even awareness) was definitely part of it. There was my grandfather, clearly in a good mood as he whistled off to work. He had no idea I was watching him. He had no idea that, at that very moment, I was feeling love for him. And there was the rest of my sleeping family, to whom I felt connected, also – all with only my awareness. Was this one of the first times I was aware of feeling non-transactional love? Love for my family that was just love – not a response to some behavior or input from them? I don’t doubt I felt it before that moment, but how often was I consciously aware of that love emanating from me?

Then there was the land – the trees, our yard, the hills, the river, the limestone – I was filled with wonder and love for it, too. The sun, the light, all of the beauty in that early morning: had I ever felt such an outpouring of love?

I remember feeling a tingly, buzzy, sensation in my fingers and toes – I was full of some energy I couldn’t name. In fact, there were no words to articulate the experience. This was one of the few times in my childhood that I didn’t follow my mother around the house blabbing every detail of something to her. Later, when everyone was up, I held my tongue. I knew those few minutes of experience had been mine in a way that was deeply personal.

Many years later, I had a discussion/philosophical argument with my brother about chaos theory and the butterfly effect (can a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico cause a hurricane in China?) He wasn’t buying it. But I argued that everything was connected. I remember saying, “I believe it. I believe it is all connected – we are all connected.” He suggested that was magical thinking for which there was no “real” evidence  – and I told him I “just knew it”. (Of course, science has proven spooky action from a distance now, so I feel vindicated on the evidence front.) But I was convinced long ago on the level of personal experience – I had felt that connection.

Is that why this one childhood memory has remained so cherished and luminous? Was this the moment I first had the felt, lived, experience that all is connected? I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that even after years of taking this memory out and turning it over and over in my hands, it has never lost its shine – and that’s how I know it is important.

This morning, I woke just as the sun was casting a pink glow over everything. The green trees outside my window were lovely against that pink sky. I felt both gratitude and a sense of well-being, waking up to so much beauty. But it wasn’t an “awakening”.

 You can have the other words-chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it. –Mary Oliver

Let Go…and sleep

My mother says that, as a child, I could – and did – fall asleep anywhere. Once while shopping downtown, she stopped to chat with an acquaintance for a few minutes. When she was ready to move on with our errands, she looked around for me – and discovered me, sound asleep, on the sidewalk.

I wish sleep came as easily now.

Oh, I can still fall asleep (sometimes) with the rapidity and grace of a fainting goat. But the depth and duration of my sleep is often not impressive. I am becoming more well acquainted with the hours between 2 and 5 a.m. than I ever wished.

On my good nights, I sleep for a couple of hours before waking up. On the bad nights, I am keenly aware of each tick of the clock.

My thoughts have been casting a shadow on the moon of my heart.

Some nights the shadow looks suspiciously like Donald Trump, or the clashing of angry crowds, or a family waiting to be rescued from their roof. Sometimes it is just a blobby shadow with no distinctive shape. I think and I worry about politics, about what is happening to the earth, about all of us.

I must remember how to let go of thinking.