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23 Apr 2021

Serenity – I usually post something about how the semester is going not long after it has gotten underway—long before now, at least. Once we moved to online classes I started posting my thoughts on that experience as well. You may (or may not) have noticed that I haven’t posted anything like that this semester, though. There is a reason for this, and that reason is that I am on sabbatical.

“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”

I’ve been hesitant to mention this before because I didn’t want it to seem like I was complaining about my situation. You see, before the pandemic came along and changed everything, I had plans to be somewhere else for the semester. That did not happen, and I am still in Seoul. Things could have been a lot worse for me, though, and I am aware that many people’s lives have been upended by the pandemic, not to mention the lives that have been taken by it. All things considered, I feel that I have been very fortunate. Was it disappointing that I wasn’t able to carry out my original plans for the semester? Yes, it was. I’m not going to lie about that. But it’s difficult to feel sorry for myself knowing that so many people have had a much harder time. And there have been benefits to staying here for the semester, which I expect I will talk about at some point in the future.

I’m writing today not necessarily as an update on how things are going, but more as a way to gather my thoughts. Things have been somewhat trying of late for reasons that I don’t really want to get into right now, and last week I hit a low point. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that I was feeling overwhelmed by everything. Looking back on things now, on the other side of that low point, I must admit that it does seem a bit silly. Were things really that bad? No, they probably weren’t. But there were a number of factors that came together to create a negative synergy, and as a whole it all felt, well, overwhelming. There is a reason we talk about the straw that broke the camel’s back and not, say, the log—all of those little straws may be insignificant when taken on their own, but taken together they can be a burden that feels too great to bear.

I am deliberately being a little cryptic about what these straws were, because that’s not the point of today’s entry. The point is that, with HJ’s help and support, I was able to make it through that moment of despair—we were able to make it through together—and in the process I came to realize something. This is not necessarily something I didn’t know before, but sometimes you can “know” things and still not really know them. These realizations always sound trite and obvious after the fact, because they are generally perceived as “common knowledge.” My realization was no exception, and it was this: there are certain things in life that are beyond my control, and stressing out about them is pointless.

You may be familiar with what is often called the “Serenity Prayer.” It is usually quoted as follows:

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.

According to Wikipedia, the original actually runs a little differently: “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.” The two versions might at first seem very similar, but there are in fact some significant differences. There is the ordering of elements, with the original starting with courage and the commonly quoted version starting with serenity. There is also the fact that the original uses the passive voice (“what must be altered,” “what cannot be helped”), focusing less on the speaker and more on the “things,” while the commonly quoted version highlights the speaker’s ability (or lack thereof) to change things; the original seems more willing here to relinquish agency and a focus on the self, which seems appropriate for this type of prayer. Perhaps most importantly, though, the original focuses on the necessity of change, while the commonly quoted version focuses instead on the possibility of change. The latter version does have a nice symmetry to it, in terms of distinguishing between what can and cannot be changed, which is probably why it is more common than the original. The more I think about it, though, the more I think I might like the original better. The commonly quoted version seems to conflate what should be changed and what can be changed, and this can be dangerous. After all, not everything that can be done necessarily should be done.

These are some of the thoughts I’ve been having these days. But I remember hearing this prayer when I was younger and thinking that it sounded very trite and clichéd. And I suppose it is, if by that we mean that it has been repeated so often that it has lost its freshness. But there is a reason that clichés become clichés in the first place—they ring true enough that people feel the need to constantly quote them. What I realize as I get older is that, cliché or no, there is a truth in this prayer that might be easy to know on an intellectual level but very difficult to actually put into practice.

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between things that can or should be changed and things that can’t, but there is one category of things that can be very easily placed in the “can’t change” or “cannot be helped” category: things that are now in the past. Again, this probably sounds painfully obvious, but how many times have you stressed out over something that has already happened and thus—according to the laws of physics as we understand them—cannot be changed? I try not to do this, because I know the futility of it, but I would be lying if I said that I was always (or even mostly) successful.

So these days I am trying to live by this prayer that I found so clichéd when I was younger. Of the three qualities mentioned—serenity, courage, and wisdom—I probably have the most courage. I’m not saying that I am heroically courageous, striding the land and righting wrongs wherever I find them. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am the least deficient in courage; I certainly do often seem to be much shorter on serenity and wisdom, at any rate, and perhaps serenity most of all. Still, trying to keep in mind this distinction between things that can and cannot be changed does help, as I seem to waste a lot of time stressing over the latter. I’m not expecting to solve all my problems in this area any time soon, but it is always good to be working toward where you want to be. For now, I am satisfied with that.

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