God, 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, Reinhold Neibuhr.‘
‘Why’ don’t matter. ‘What’ matters.
When I was a boy growing up in Arkansas, the most important person in my life, in very real ways, was Rose. Now, I have written about Rose before; she was our “colored” (that was the phrase) “maid” (so was that), but she was so much more than our colored maid. She was really the woman who raised me on a day-to-day basis, at least for my childhood years. Only about 30 years old herself, with a half-dozen kids of her own, active in her church and in the local chapter of the NAACP, she nonetheless gave much of her very great energy and faith to raising the Clark kids. This was welcome to us, for my mother was not well, struggling as she did for decades with alcoholism, and my father was often away for business reasons. But it was also welcome simply because Rose was Rose. Being a black woman in the South in the 1960s, she was thoroughly patient, and being a woman of deep Christian faith, she was full of the love and joy of Jesus, and she told us about that. I still remember her quoting Scripture to us, singing hymns, and—I wonder what this must have been like for this fundamentalist Baptist woman—drilling us in our Episcopal Church Catechism. She would laugh and laugh as we tried to memorize all those “high-fallutin’ words to describe the Gospel of Jesus.” But then, that’s what Rose generally did: laugh and laugh. Joy and laughter were for her as easy as breathing.
Even after we moved away from Arkansas, and from Rose, our family, especially my sister—who is better about these things than I am—stayed in regular contact with Rose. But a few years ago when she was dying, all of us took turns going back to Little Rock to see her and to say goodbye. I remember during one of those visits, she and I were talking about how our lives had passed, the good and the bad (hers mostly good; mine not so much). I asked her about some bit of tragedy, either in her life or mine, I can’t now remember. Eventually I said something like, “I just don’t understand why these things have to happen.” Well. She almost jumped out of her chair—quite a feat for a then-invalid woman of great size—and fairly shouted at me: “No, no, no. You DO NOT ask that question. ‘Why’ don’t matter. ‘Why gets the big booby prize for questions. ‘Why’ don’t matter. ‘What’ matters.” “Uh,” I cleverly responded, “What does that mean?” “It MEANS,” she said, now uncharacteristically stern, “that God don’t care two bits about us knowing why something happens. God cares about what we do about it. So ‘Why’ don’t matter. ‘What’ matters. What you do about it matters.”
I don’t know if Rose knew the Serenity Prayer; I kind of doubt it. But she surely was saying the same thing that Niebuhr was saying when he wrote the Serenity Prayer, the same thing that millions of alcoholics and addicts say every day in the rooms of recovery. Help me accept the things I cannot change (‘Why’ don’t matter) and give me the courage to change the things I can (‘What’ matters; What you do about it matters).
I think about both the Serenity Prayer and about “Why Don’t Matter; What Matters” every day these days, as my own family struggles with my wife’s rapidly progressing ALS disease. Why must such a lovely person struggle with such a horrible disease? Why must our beautiful daughter be left without her mother just as she enters her teenage years? Why am I losing my beloved wife, partner and best friend just as our life together gets underway?
Now, the fact that philosophers and theologians have struggled with such questions of human suffering for millennia does not change my conviction that the most profound theological and philosophical answer to the question of human suffering has been given to me by a simple black woman who loved Jesus, and by a simple prayer (albeit written by a complex man) that has become the lifeline for washed out and broken addicts and alcoholics for decades: Why Don’t Matter. What Matters. The serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can. The hard fact is that I cannot change the reality that my wife is ill with a terminal disease. I just cannot do a single thing to change that. Argh. AARRRGGGHHH. But I can decide what I do in response: whether I act in wise and loving ways, whether I bring my best self to every day, whether I allow myself to grieve and feel the pain, as I must, whether I have enough guts to walk with her, really walk with her, through this, whether I summon up the joy and gratitude of my life as a gift to our daughter on a daily basis. These are the things I can change. These are the things that matter.
And so I have started using Rose’s construct in hard conversations. Anytime someone who is struggling—in addiction or recovery, in faith and church circles—asks me any version of the “why” question, I am turning to Rose, and Neibuhr, for the answer: Why don’t matter; what matters. The courage to change the things we can.
A corollary to this wisdom has to do with the gift of community. Some Christians I know are fond of saying that “God will not give you something you cannot handle.” The answer to this is: bullshit. First of all, I’m not sure that God “gives” us suffering, but that’s another story, and a long theological treatise. But even assuming that God “gives” such things, then it surely is true that God always gives us things we cannot handle–but then God gives us the gift of community as a way to get through them, precisely because we cannot handle them alone. This is why there is no such thing as a solitary Christian, or a lone recovering addict. In fact, if one were going to ask the “why” question (which we are of course not allowed to do) then one could even suppose that one of the purposes of suffering is so that we are forced into the arms of our loving communities—families, churches, recovery fellowships—to ask for help, to remember that we are not alone. After all, the entire Gospel of Christ is an incarnational story: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The God of the Universe came, not to remove our suffering or to take it to some far away place, but rather simply to be with us in it. That is an idea, too, that Rose would like. In fact, it may have been Rose who first taught it to me. May God bless her dear departed soul.