The Power of Serenity
I once heard a therapist say that everything he needed to know about life he had learned in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He said it was the only place where people were so openly raw and honest about who they truly were, shortcomings included. It wasn’t until I attended a similar support group, Al-Anon – a meeting for family members of addicts – that I began to understand what he meant.
When I walked into my first meeting, I admittingly was a bit skeptical. It was a Sunday and my jacket was soaked from the rain that fell on me during my walk from my car to the building. The meeting was held in a classroom at a local college that hadn’t updated their furniture in the last few decades. About twenty people, ranging in age from 21 to 65, sat in school desks like students waiting for their teacher to begin class. “Do I belong here?” I wondered. It had been over four years since I had lost my mother to an accidental overdose so how exactly was I supposed to benefit from a support group designed for people living in homes of addiction? I feared I was too late to reap any benefits. As I took a seat in the front row, I stared up at a corkboard with two signs pinned to it. One sign listed the 12 steps of Al-Anon and the other sign had the serenity prayer printed on it. I sat there reading the words of the prayer to myself over and over again.
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.
It wasn’t the first time I had read this prayer. My mother had it engraved on a plaque in our dining room and every time I passed it as a child, I stopped and read the prayer to myself. There I was years later, a non-religious millennial desiring some type of connection to a higher power, reading the same words and finding them equally, if not more, profound.
As the meeting began people started sharing their stories one by one. Some talked about how powerless they felt over their loved one’s addiction while others shared examples of dysfunctional behavior in their home and how much agony it was causing them. While no story was exactly the same as the story I lived through growing up, so many of their feelings and thoughts resonated with me.
When there was about five minutes left in the meeting, I surprised myself by choosing to speak. I told the strangers in the room that I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place considering I no longer had a loved one struggling with addiction, but something had led me to that room with the outdated desk furniture on that rainy Sunday afternoon. I told them that I spent twenty two years living with an addicted mother who was as equally wonderful as she was terribly ill. And then I began talking about the heartache I was enduring at the time resulting from a boyfriend breaking up with me. I talked about my tendency, and perhaps our tendency as human beings, to reject, rather than accept, the things I cannot change. I didn’t want to accept the fact that I was no longer in a relationship with this man, just as I really didn’t want to accept the finality of my mother’s death.
Because the truth is that I hate accepting things I cannot change – especially when I didn’t choose for those particular things to happen. I didn’t want to live in a world where I was unexpectedly broken up with and had my mother taken from me far too early in life. But there I was – living in that world. No matter how many tears I cried or memories I replayed in my head, these truths in my life were not going to change. The more I rejected them, the more I inevitably suffered.
This is a trap so many of us fall into. Why doesn’t that person like me? Why did that person die? Why did I get diagnosed with this disorder? And the list goes on. What I realized in that meeting as I re-read the serenity prayer was that my survival and happiness depends largely on acceptance. For me, acceptance is looking at my life and all that has happened thus far, and sitting with it for as long as it takes. It’s trusting that while my journey is not always pretty, it’s lending itself to shaping me as a person. By breathing my reality in and cherishing it as my own, I am able to then focus my energy on all the things in my life I do get to choose, and there is real power in that. Serenity is a practice and it’s a difficult one. But I’m coming to believe that it’s crucial in the healing process.