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.
I don’t remember where I first heard this prayer. Perhaps it was whispered by one of my many friends who found the courage to face life “one day at a time” through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). I do know that I wrongly attributed it to St Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth-century friar who wrote,
Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.
In fact, the Serenity Prayer was written by Reinhold Niebuhr, the twentieth-century theologian. The prayer was popularized by AA, perhaps because it encapsulates a struggle to act on what is within our control, rather than dwell upon the seemingly unfair forces that lead us to despair.
A few years ago I found myself revisiting the Serenity Prayer. I had descended the hardwood stairs in our 1912 Arts and Crafts period house in sock feet (something I had repeatedly scolded my young granddaughters about). Suddenly, my feet flew from under me and I crashed down, hitting my lower back on the edge of the stairs.
Everyone in my family has had lumbar spine surgery for L4/5 compression and stenosis, a narrowing of the opening in the spinal column due to arthritic calcium deposits and bone spurs. I myself had avoided this surgery years before through a rigorous program of physical therapy. Then, I whacked that area hard enough to see a white flash often described as “seeing stars.”
But I gingerly stood up and saw my wife’s startled face quickly pop around the corner from the kitchen where she was working.
“I’m OK, I think,” I squeaked, surveying my back and legs for any broken bones or blood. Finding none, I finished my descent while Billie gently reminded me how often I had admonished her to “put on shoes before coming downstairs.”
About a week later, I was walking our energetic Black Lab in the woods near our home. These two-hour afternoon walks were an opportunity to let Pip off-leash and for both of us to run. We were racing downhill toward the end of the circuit when my right foot failed to come up and I tripped on a protruding root. I flipped and came down so quickly that my forehead drove into the soft black dirt of the trail. I saw stars again.
Shaken, I was still brushing dirt off my face when I arrived home ten minutes later and explained to Billie what had happened. But again, I apparently caused no damage.
Over the next few months, I began to experience escalating neck and back pain and some numbness in my hands. I saw an orthopedic doctor who prescribed surgery on my cervical spine, followed by second and third opinions that agreed with the first. Six months later I had surgery to remove the bone spurs that had driven into my spinal cord in three places.
By the time I had the surgery, however, I couldn’t walk without a walker and my body below my chest was numb. My symptoms had noticeably worsened with each day.
Surgery did not produce the instant miracle that I had expected. I was still numb and too weak to walk, even with my four-wheeled walker. Told that my condition could be permanent, I was discharged to a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility for physical and occupational therapy. I was a bit despondent.
Given the physical challenges that some people face, I am embarrassed to admit my discouragement. I had just recently retired to what I thought would be a life of writing, woodcarving, songwriting, and travel with Billie. Instead, I couldn’t walk. I had no use of my hands for typing or playing guitar. Using sharp carving tools or power saws did not seem like a good idea. I won’t say it was deep despair, but I was more than a bit blue.
This is when I remembered the Serenity Prayer. I was raised to pray, but don’t do it much. However, this prayer was helpful. I could accept that the presenting causes – my falls – were unchangeable. I was not yet prepared to say that my condition was unchangeable. What I needed was the courage to move forward with physical therapy (PT) and so threw myself into the exercises.
Seven months later serenity from acceptance and small courage to exercise paid off. I saw significant improvement in walking, even without a walker or cane. My hands and feet were still a little numb, but the functionality returned to my hands enough to type and play guitar. I wasn’t as good as I was at either before surgery, but I was never that good anyway. Even now I am prepared to accept that I am unlikely to become Eric Clapton or a steno pool typist.
What I did not face was the last part of the prayer, “the wisdom to know the difference.” And, true to form, wisdom came from an unusual place. About five months after surgery, I was getting a haircut from Maureen, the self-described Jersey girl who is a great cutter and has become a friend. After hearing me complain about “spending my life doing PT,” Maureen told me about her shoulder operation. “I thought I might never be able to stand and cut hair again,” she said, adding, “But I told myself ‘Mo, if you don’t do the PT you absolutely won’t be able to work again!’ So, Alan, you got one job right now. Don’t fuck it up!”
It strikes me that the “wisdom to know the difference” is the difficult part, knowing when to accept challenges as something unchangeable and when to realize that the courage to keep on fighting is counterproductive. Will persistence finally pay off? Or should you cut your losses and quit beating your head against a brick wall? In this case, Maureen set me straight, and her advice (which Billie frequently quoted) spurred me on in the months that followed. I had accepted my circumstance, mustered enough courage to work through PT, and learned that my “job” was to keep going. I also took comfort from another quote from Reinhold Niebuhr:
Success is not final. Failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.