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Grant me serenity

9 September 2007 – Seattle

“God, grant me serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” You might have seen this prayer on posters or on the Internet. I like the message. Some things in life can’t be changed—we just have to accept them. Other things are unfair and undesirable, but luckily, we can fix them. The trick is knowing which is which, goes the punchline. If we do not accept the things we cannot change, we will be unhappy, in constant struggle. If we accept things that are undesirable for us but that we can change, we will not be as happy as possible.

Hold on. Is that right? Why should we even strive to be as happy as possible? That is a path that does not end, and it will never fulfill. “If only I had this one thing in my life, I would finally be truly happy. Okay, now I have it, and I’m almost there, but I just want this one more thing…” It will never stop. (If you think you disagree, try to tell yourself what all you want to have in life to be finally, fully, irrevocably happy.) We should strive to be content with what we have. All else is a treadmill of wants and desires. The prayer could read simply, “God, grant me serenity to accept all that happens.”

But that seems fatalistic. If people always just accepted things as they were, then important social changes would never take place. Such changes as the Civil Rights movement, women’s suffrage, end of apartheid. I consider these changes beneficial, because they allow greater numbers of people to live with less suffering. But above, I argued that we should all just be content with what we have, because striving to be as happy as possible is an endless, unfulfillable path.

The reconciliation of these ideas should be clear. Each one of us should be content with her own lot in life. I should not strive to be happier than I am. What more happiness I hope for is a mirage; the idea that I will be happier with the attainment of more things or achievements, beyond satisfying my basic needs, is an illusion. At the same time, each one of us should do all that is possible to help other people. Here, the help that I bring is real; the idea that people’s lives can be improved is solid. (There is a difference between the acceptance of quality of life and the quality of life itself. A mother with a starving child may have gathered all the serenity in the world to accept the situation, but it is clear that her life can be improved dramatically by satisfying her and her child’s basic needs.)

I would revise the prayer. “May I have serenity to accept all that happens to me, and the courage to do all I can to help others.”

There is a wonderful koan that illustrates this idea.

I once heard a story about a visit to heaven and hell. In both places the visitor saw many people seated at a table on which many delicious foods were laid out. Chopsticks over a meter long were tied to their right hands, while their left hands were tied to their chairs. In hell, however much they stretched out their arms, the chopsticks were too long for them to get food into their mouths. They grew impatient and got their hands and chopsticks tangled with one another’s. The delicacies were scattered here and there.

In heaven on the other hand, people happily used the long chopsticks to pick out someone else’s favorite food and feed it to him, and in turn they were being fed by others. They all enjoyed their meal in harmony.

-Shundo Aoyama, Zen Seeds.