Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom

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.


Alan Culler
Alan Culler
Alan Cay Culler is a writer of stories and songs, his fourth career (aspiring actor, speakers agent, change consultant, storyteller.) He retired after thirty-seven years as a leadership and change consultant. Alan was an executive coach, a leadership team facilitator, trainer, and project manager for innovation and improvement initiatives. Alan’s point of view: "Business is all about people, customers, staff, suppliers, and the community - pay disciplined attention to these people and rewards follow; ignore them and success will not last." Alan is “a seeker of wisdom from unusual places.” He is currently completing three books: Wisdom from Unusual Places, Is Consulting Wisdom an Oxymoron?, and Change Leader? Who me?. Alan earned a BA in Theatre from Centre College, an MBA from the London Business School, and a post-graduate certificate in Organization Development from Columbia University. Alan also builds cigar box guitars and wood sculptures, hikes, travels with his wife Billie, and gets as much grandchildren playtime as he can.

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  1. The fear of not succeeding in the face of a problem or a challenge is something that we all experience at some point in our life. For some people this becomes a limitation that prevents them from living fully and hinders the achievement of desired goals. Nobody likes to feel blocked, deprived of their inner limits of the freedom to do their best and overcome the problems that arise before us. In particular when it comes to health because the treatment can heal but sometimes it really hurts and it sure changes your life, and certainly it is difficult to find serenity. But prayer helps to find the courage to never lose hope for the future and the certainty of succeeding, of trying, one step at a time and with determination, to improve the situation.
    Because life changes but when we can do it, we are able to survive its shocks and find ourselves on the other side of the dark side, to find the light and live again.
    Happy to know that you have found the courage to make the change that allows you to live more peacefully.
    Good luck!

    • Brother Aldo. Thank you so much for your empathy and support It is good to be back on the light side. Now I neede to go into “grandchildren training” repeating the squatting, bending, lifting and running exercises that I need to spend time with the grandkids.
      Thanks again

  2. Your story is heart-touching brother Alan. Your story is a lesson for us all and we all need your experience and acquired wisdom.

    We cannot change the weather, but we can accept to. We can change how we think and become more positive in life.
    To change what we cannot change is an impossible dream. It leads to despair.
    Not changing what we can change is reluctance and lack of courage.

    I am glad that you had the courage to change what you could change in spite of the hard effort you had to do. Now, you enjoy playing your guitar. It has not be perfect, but the joy shall still be there.

    • Thanks again Brother Ali for your on-going support of my writing. Another friend recently wrote to me “I choose to seek joy” and I think that is the best orientation to life that I can imagine. -Alan

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