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The 

Serenity

Prayer

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.

The Serenity Prayer. I first heard it when I was ten. I was playing on the carpet with my brother J. when our father came in. He had been away for a few months. He came back bearing gifts, as usual. This time the gifts were two necklaces. One was a large, gold-colored, oddly shaped whistle that made me think of an old-timey Naval Officer. The other, also gold-colored, was a medallion with a sentence written on it. I held it up for a closer look.

“Grant me the serenity…” my father began. I glanced at him quickly then looked away as he finished the prayer. I’d never heard his voice like that. He was standing upright, hands clasped in front of him, and it seemed to me that he was looking at the ceiling, or perhaps out the window. In my memories eye he has a faraway look as if his eyes aren’t seeing at all. I was afraid to look back at him.

Still on my knees on the carpet, staring a bit too intently at the medallion, my vision started to blur. My breath quickened and I choked down the sob as my eyes stung from holding back the tears. I didn’t know why I was crying. I held it down and it passed and I mumbled thank you for the gift.

“That’s the most important sentence you’ll ever hear, Brian,” my father said. I felt him looking at me. I was embarrassed to meet his stare but I eventually did. His eyes burned with a self-righteous zeal that I’d never known in him. I hadn’t known his eyes for a long time anyway, but still. Those eyes were new and they frightened me.

I put the whistle necklace on. Both my parents wore a whistle necklace. And besides, this necklace didn’t burn zealously in my father’s eyes. I didn’t know it’s meaning and therefore it was just a necklace that my father, finally home, had given me. Dad’s home! Good, right? The medallion I put back in its square white box and then in a drawer that held other trinkets, marbles, dreidels, minutia that children collect and horde and forget about.

I would hear that sentence a lot over the next few months. My father himself added the medallion to his necklace that he always wore; a normal shaped silver whistle, my parents symbol of their love for each other.

Book-wormy as I was, that’s a big sentence for a ten year old to digest. Serenity, courage, wisdom? What are these lofty ideas? And though the words of the sentence perhaps didn’t mean much to me except that grown-ups speak strangely sometimes, the sentence itself became a symbol: Dad’s home, he’s present, and he’s awake. He’s tickling us again, throwing a football with us again, coming through the front door at 5 pm again and we’re running into his massive, black jean covered legs again.

And then, he’s gone again. Nothing is really said. I’m only ten, my three brothers younger than I. School continued, playdates continued, snack time continued, The Simpsons were still on Fox5 every evening at 6:30. The world of a child is blessedly present, and kids get used to things pretty quickly.

After a few more months we all flew to Arizona. I’d never been to the desert before. On the drive from the airport to the hotel my brothers and I were extremely confused by the snow-capped mountains while we were hot in shorts and t-shirts down below.

 

We had come ‘to see dad.’ Okay. Cool. Yay. Right?

For the first time in my ten years (and unfortunately not the last) I was becoming acquainted with emotions subtler and slower than ‘fun’ and ‘wanna play’ and ‘want candy.’ It was hard to joke with my brothers. I didn’t have the energy to play tag. Hide-and-go-seek just gave me too much time to feel…weird.

“I think I have a headache,” I said to my mom. She smiled at me, a small smile that captured my eyes and quieted the flutter in my stomach.

 

“I kind of have a headache too,” she said. “You know we’re at a high altitude here, sometimes that can cause headaches.”

 

“Well, it’s not really a headache,” I started slowly, “I mean, my head feels kinda weird, and my belly does too, but it’s not like an ache, and I’m not gonna throw up or anything.”

 

Again she looked at me with that small smile. Infinite patience and overflowing kindness is my mother. She was feeling that in her head and belly too.

The next day we drove to a large campus. My father was on the basketball court shooting around with a few other guys, most a lot younger than him. His Adidas Superstars and high socks flashed white in the crisp desert sun.

 

Dad! Dad. It had been another few months since we last saw him. The immediate jump of excitement at recognizing him acted as a cattle prod, stimulating the strangeness in my head and belly into an agonizing flurry. We spilled out of the car and he gathered my brothers and I in his large hands.

 

He walked us inside one of the nearby buildings. I recognized the sentence written in huge letters behind the reception desk: “Grant me the serenity…”

 

I hadn’t thought of that sentence in a while, had half-forgotten about the medallion that I put away in the drawer, had stopped hearing the clinking tinkling of my dad putting on his necklace in the early morning. It jolted me. Another cattle prod to my tiny, confused system. I put my hood on and went to the water fountain, then rejoined my family, trailing behind them. I walked, placing each foot carefully within the linoleum square tiles, taking extreme care to not step on the cracks.

 

After a while, my brother J. and I (our other two brothers were too young) were introduced to a woman and another girl a few years older than me. Her father was also here; the woman was helping them, she said. We went to a room with bean bags and other child-appropriate decor. Prompted by the woman, we spoke for a while. The girl and Joseph spoke a lot. I didn’t understand how they were so at ease, and it took me a while to warm up. We had a rather lengthy discussion about Cocaine, I remember, each of us trying to show how much we knew about it. I was insistent that it was often taken by rubbing it into the gums, which I’d seen in a movie when a gangster was testing his purchase and mistook that for how you actually consume the drug.

Eventually we were given pencils and paper.

“Write a letter to your father explaining to him how you feel when he’s not at home,” the woman said.

I pulled my hood lower down over my face. I was already crying. I didn’t know why, or what, but the ripples in my stomach were now streaming down my face in hot tears. I went to the corner to write the letter. They hadn’t seen me crying.

Once we had each finished with our letters, we went to another room where a lot of people were sitting in a large circle. I saw my mom there, with my two youngest brothers, standing outside of the seated circle. In the middle were two chairs facing each other.

Scared shitless. That’s what I was. Naturally, I’m extremely, painfully shy. And now, in front of a large group of people whom I had never seen before, seated in a plain chair facing my father I had to tell him what I was just starting to understand that I was feeling…I wanted to jump through the window and disappear into the snow-capped hills. As it was I already felt like I was going to melt into a puddle of tears on the cheap speckled floor.

My dad was already sitting in one of the chairs. J. went first. He was laughing and smiling and cutely awkward when he said he wanted dad to come home so we could all have a catch and a tickle fight. They hugged and everyone chuckled.

My turn. The woman asked me to take my hood off, which I did reluctantly. I’m sure I was visibly shaking as I entered the circle and sat down. My father was smiling kindly at me. I looked down at the letter I had written and by the time the first word was halfway up my throat I was hysterically crying. Trying to get the words out in stuttered, sob wrenched fragments, I finally gave up and just sat there crying in the middle of the circle, eyes shut tight and letter crumpled in my frustrated fists. I felt my father’s hands on my shoulders and allowed myself to be pulled into his lap, where I buried my face in his neck and let the sobs run out.

My father came home again, and left again, came home again, and left again. I don’t know exactly how many times he went to rehab before he succeeded in becoming sober. I told him I hated him, I didn’t speak to him for a year, I sat and listened to him as he explained himself time and again and used all my strength to keep my mouth shut and my eyes on the ground as I did my absolute best to impersonate a rock. I was a confused and angry and hurt kid who didn’t know how to understand nor deal with what I was feeling.

The Serenity Prayer came to represent for me a bullshit, falsely self-righteous excuse that my father had tried to use to alleviate himself of responsibility. I would get angry and attack it viciously any time I heard it. “‘The wisdom to know the things I cannot change’ is just a convenient excuse for not having to try”, I would say. “‘The courage to change the things I can’ — all you’re courageous enough to do is scream at my mother for saving your life, you coward!” I would shout venomously. “‘The wisdom to know the difference.’ Wisdom? Wisdom! You dumb fuck!” I would bellow, blind and incoherent with the rage of a hurt son.

Today I am 25 years old. My parents are divorced, my father lives in Texas and I live in Israel. At the time I’m writing this we haven’t seen each other in a bit over a year. We speak on the phone now and again, and in two months he’s coming to Israel for my wedding. His oldest son’s wedding. I often get teary-eyed envisioning the day. Nothing grandiose, just a hug from him, a smile, a small blessing in his own words.

I told my father that I forgive him when I was 12, but it really took until very recently for me to understand what forgiveness means. It really took until very recently for me to actually forgive him. He can be a difficult man, and though I try to not admit it, I can be just as stubborn as him (like father like son). How have I come to forgive him? How have I come to be able to move forward and live my life without being weighed down by the self poison that is anger? I released the Serenity Prayer from my condemnation.

 

I nurture the peace of mind that there are things I cannot change. I cannot change my father, nor should I try, nor should I hope for him to change. My problem, in the end, is not with him.

I ask fervently for the courage to change the things I can. And what can I change? I can change myself, and that is the only thing in the world I can change. Yes, I can change the world, but only through changing myself. And it takes courage to change myself. It takes courage to admit that I was wrong, that I’m not perfect, that I can be better in certain areas and aspects of myself. It takes courage to look at myself honestly in the mirror and realize that I’m human and therefore fallible, and that that’s actually a gift.

And wisdom? It is a wise person who can let go their grip on the universe as if it’s all up to them, who can look towards themselves to be the change they want to see, and who can gaze serenely at the world knowing that others are just as flawed as they are, that everyone has their story, and that every difficult situation is just an opportunity to bring as much light into today as we possibly can.

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