When I was young every Sunday morning was spent at church. My short attention span was even shorter then, and paying attention during mass was all but impossible. Instead I would fidget on the pew daydreaming, leafing through the bible, counting the panes of stained glass above the altar, or staring at the artwork on the wall.
Amidst the portraits of Mary and other saints, was a framed poem. It was written in calligraphy, short and memorable. I assumed it was some piece of ancient wisdom, a psalm from the old testament. I later learned it was actually penned in the 1930s and is quoted in many different forms. The one framed and hung in my church ran:
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 am sure you’ve read it, too. It’s called the Serenity Prayer and it has been widely popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs. And, it’s quite possibly the single most useful thing I took from my Catholic education.
In the years since I have found myself repeating those lines to myself under a wide variety of circumstances—in the midst of calamitous college exams, harrowing moments abroad, crises at work, parenting disasters, or days like today.
I concede, it does feel like everything is all falling apart. As I write this one of the anchors on CNN is urging viewers not to panic, which is not a good sign. The markets are in free fall. A global pandemic is shutting down cities around the world. Refugees are rushing over borders. There is apocalyptic talk of shortages, quarantines, collapses and death. Some rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem.
But this is not the end of days. Not yet at least. It is true, we are inarguably in the depths of a global refugee crisis, a global environmental crisis, a global public health crisis and a global economic crisis. It feels like it’s all coming undone. But we have been through crises like this before and we have always muddled through. We will muddle through again. Eventually.
However, that thought doesn’t make today feel any better. As a species, we need to feel like we have our hands on the wheel. Whether it is with work, with our kids or with the world, when it seems that events are beyond our control, that we are powerless to protect those we love, unable to steer towards safety, then we lean towards despair.
It’s times like this that I unconsciously repeat the Serenity Prayer to myself. And it helps. There are things none of us can change right now. No one of us can calm the markets or stop coronavirus. But there are many, many things we can do. Simple things. Banal actions that seem almost pathetic in their smallness.
We can wash our hands. We can cancel the book club. We can reassure ourselves there is enough toilet paper. We can make small donations to politicians who would do better or organizations already doing good. We can check on our grandparents. We can stop worrying about the Dow Jones.
These are tiny things, none of which really matter in the big picture. And yet, almost magically, when we do them together, do them day by day, they do matter. If we all gave just a few dollars to organizations like Mercy Corps, the suffering of millions of displaced people around the world would be alleviated. If we all reached out to our politicians, they would pay far better attention. If we all wash our hands and avoid others, it would reduce the transmission rate of the coronavirus dramatically, allowing our health care systems to cope, significantly lowering mortality rates, saving lives.
So, don’t let the tide of events drown you. This isn’t the end of the world, just an especially rough patch. We really don’t need to panic. And, while you can’t control it all, you can control many things. You, and I, and all of us, can take tiny steps that bring us all closer, day by day, to solid ground again.