On Serenity, Courage, Wisdom, and the Value of Community

“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.”

I’ve been dealing with a difficult situation lately. A person whom I care about deeply, by no fault of his own, is being firmly trapped in a jar, blocking him from his dreams. Recently I’ve been presented with a few courses of action I could take, all of which have a slight chance of helping this individual, and an unknown chance of making things worse for him.

This situation was weighing on my mind and heart when I went to my local synagogue to observe the Yom Kippur holiday a few days ago. I don’t practice Jewish rituals as “religiously” (for lack of a better term) as I used to. In fact, I admit the main reason I went to the synagogue was because my friend wanted me to go with her. I came in full of mental unrest about the situation, wanting to pray, but not sure where to begin.

I used to picture God as a literal guy in the sky, with a voice that boomed like thunder, and a team of angel-minions who came down to Earth to answer our prayers. After eleven years of postsecondary training in the natural and social sciences, my beliefs are pretty solidly agnostic. There could be a supernatural being somewhere, maybe, but we don’t know enough to prove it yet. I don’t really believe there is a definable entity listening to my prayers. But, I still find prayer to be an important meditative exercise that can bring me clarity on my own desires and priorities, and it can help me find a direction for my life’s energy.

As I listened to the familiar Jewish melodies from my childhood, though, the only words I could find to pray were the words of the Christian Serenity Prayer I quoted at the top of this post. Give me the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. I’ve already written about the Serenity Prayer in this post about being a fighter.

So, let’s break this message down a bit, as it bears great relevance to the disability experience.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change. There are many aspects of disability we can’t control. We often have limited power over the medical facts of our disabilities. Nor can we always control the ableist beliefs or behaviors of others toward us. Sometimes, we can get caught up in desperate efforts to escape our disabilities, or to change the minds of people who just won’t listen. These efforts can drain our energy and distract us from other, more fruitful ventures. We can find serenity, calm, and peace when we are able to accept what is instead of struggling for what can’t be.

Grant me the courage to change the things I can. Sometimes, our actions are effective. We can change our own beliefs and behavior. We can advocate for ourselves when a system is inaccessible. We can give time and money to people in need and groups working on the right side of justice. We can exercise our power to vote, to protest, and to lobby our lawmakers. Sometimes though, we are afraid to let go of the status quo, or we may question how effective our actions will be. When we hear about oppression, it is often easier to just switch the news channel or the browser window, to hope that someone else will act instead of us. Efforts to make change may bear negative consequences. But if we can find the courage to make change, we can improve our lives and the lives of others.

Grant me the wisdom to know the difference. This is where I have been struggling most. Not knowing if I can make things better for this person I care about, or if it’s time to walk away. “Knowing the difference” is likely the biggest struggle for many of us. After all, if we always knew when to act, and when to stay put, we wouldn’t ever waste any time fighting fruitless battles. In disability circles, we often talk about “picking our battles.” Knowing which battles to choose takes wisdom and experience.

As I reflected on the Serenity Prayer, it occurred to me that we can gather the wisdom to “know the difference” from community. When we put several heads together toward solving a problem, we can collectively figure out where we are able to effect change. When we work together, we are less likely to be led astray by fears keeping us from acting when we should, or anger driving us to slam our heads into brick walls.

Fortunately, the person I mentioned has a team of individuals looking out for his best interests. I am grateful for the partnership of others who recognize what is happening and put their minds and hearts toward finding the right course of action. We temper each other’s emotional reactions to the situation and collaborate to find the right path. We can accomplish much more together than I can alone.

Near the end of the Yom Kippur service, someone spoke about “holy work.” She said that “holy work” is work that (a) pulls a person out of their comfort zone, and (b) is work that requires community to be achieved. Indeed, my work with this person has challenged me and disrupted my sense of comfort. And, it is work I cannot do by myself. But, no matter what the future holds, I remind myself that the work I have already done has created positive experiences for this person which cannot be undone.

No matter what your spirituality (or lack thereof) is, I hope you may agree that the work we do in the disability community is “holy work” by the above definition. Overcoming centuries of deep-seated ableism in our history is something that disrupts our comfort, and it is something we cannot do alone. When we offer each other solidarity, wisdom, and advice for tackling challenges; when we work together to change policies affecting our lives; when we take the time to lift each other up, we are doing the “holy work” to build a positive future for our disabled brethren. Our nondisabled allies, too, are invaluable workers alongside us. May we, together, find the serenity of acceptance, the courage toward action, and the wisdom to carve our path to justice.

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