Gathering Quaker wisdom on Serenity Prayer & racism

Genius of 12 Step Movement’s Approach to Prayer and Action

This week we’ve been sharing news from John Dominic Crossan on “The World’s Greatest Prayer,” the so-called Lord’s Prayer, but another 20th-century prayer also is vitally important to millions of men and women around the world: the Serenity Prayer, popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous. During our recent 9,000-mile reporting trip around America, we visited the birthplace and grave of AA co-founder Bill W.

In reporting on American religious life, we keep bumping into the genius within the 12-step Movement. A year ago, we interviewed Quaker writer Eileen Flanagan, who firmly roots her new book in a phrase from the Serenity Prayer.

You can buy “The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change-and When to Let Go,” by Eileen Flanagan in paperback from Amazon now.

Today, we welcome Eileen back to ReadTheSpirit with a new thought-provoking article she has written, based on her own nationwide reporting. Here is Eileen Flanagan’s story …

Step by Step through The Serenity Prayer
Confronting Racism with Discernment and Action

I find it hard enough to keep my composure when my 11-year-old calls me mean. I really don’t know how I’d handle it if I were African American and heard Dr. Laura making light of the N-word, or if I were Muslim and heard my elected representative accuse me of being a terrorist. I hope I could be as wise as the diverse people I interviewed for my book on the Serenity Prayer, though I can’t say for sure. Not surprisingly, most of the African Americans I spoke with cited racism as one of the issues that challenged them to accept what they could not change and change what they could. Some talked about learning to let go of anger in the face of unfairness. Others talked about learning to see possibilities for themselves, rather than limitations. Some talked about activism, trying to work for a fairer world, without despairing over the imperfection of the world as it is. In short, they showed me—a white woman of Irish decent—how to exemplify every line of the Serenity Prayer.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

Tracey Smith-Diggs says that she needed to learn to accept her anger before she could learn to let it go. “Part of it was gender,” she explains, feeling that good girls were not supposed to be angry. “Part of it was fear of what my anger could lead to.”

Smith-Diggs—who runs pregnancy prevention programs in urban high schools—notes that we have to accept our feelings, but we choose what we do with them. “I do have ill feelings about people, and I try to pray through forgiveness,” she explains. “It’s no secret, but you can’t carry that around with you forever. I can’t carry around the anger for slavery or whatever other ills have happened. I can’t carry that because that’s not going to help me be the best spiritual person that I can be.”

Being “spiritual” does not mean being silent, and letting go of anger does not mean being passive in the face of injustice. Still, most spiritual traditions encourage some level of “letting go” and trust in a divine power. Learning how to practice acceptance without becoming a doormat can be a major challenge, especially when the issues are in the present and not just the past.

Musician Will Brock “One of the things I have to accept is that not everyone will see the universe the way I see it,” says Will Brock, a musician in his thirties. As a black man, Brock has dealt with insults and discrimination, but he chooses to focus less on what other people think and more on changing his own thoughts. “In order for white Americans to look at black Americans as human beings, they have to do it consciously because unconsciously, I am nothing but a pack horse,” he states matter-of-factly.

“In order for this world to change, every single person needs to change themselves,” he argues, noting that all of us have negative ideas we have internalized.

“If I can’t change your mind, or if I can’t guide you to a mind changing experience, then what you manifest is going to be what you manifest, and I can’t control it,” he says. “It might hinder me, but all I can do is keep my mind right and continue to get down no matter what goes on.”

…the courage to change the things I can change…

Changing his own thinking has been a journey. Growing up, Brock had two images of black men: the thug and the guy in the suit. A graduate of University of the Arts, he didn’t see himself as either one, but he realized how these images were hindering him when he decided that he wanted to become more financially savvy and found that most of the obstacles were internal. He just couldn’t picture himself as someone who could save, invest, or have good credit and felt intimidated when he went to pick up the Wall Street Journal at the newsstand. “It was amazing that all of that stuff was in my head,” he recalls. “I had to push all that stuff aside and not allow it to stop me,” he explains, adding that learning how to handle money was “a very empowering experience.”

Joan CountrymanJoan Countryman—best known for her term as Interim Director of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls—learned from her parents that how you see yourself affects how others treat you. “My mother was of the generation that she couldn’t tolerate anyone calling her by her first name unless she allowed them to. She would go to the bank and explain to them that yes, her name was Virginia, but she hadn’t given them permission to call her that.” Although Countryman describes herself as from the “hippy era” where everyone used first names, she appreciates the attitude of her parents, who grew up in the South but moved to Philadelphia, refusing to let their children be exposed to the worst of Jim Crow.

“Something that my parents gave me allows me to carry myself in the world in a way that I expect people to treat me in a humane and thoughtful way. Mostly they do, and I think that’s why. That’s something I’d love to teach kids,” she notes. “You can present yourself in ways that command some respect.”

Countryman was also influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, which changed both individual attitudes and institutional structures through collective action. She heard about Rosa Parks and the Little Rock Nine around her childhood dinner table. “There was this sense that I could make a difference, that we could make a difference,” she recalls.

She remembers learning the Serenity Prayer in high school and feeling that it was an affirmation of her ability to affect change, though it also reminded her to choose where to put her energy. She became an activist herself during the Vietnam War, and today, retired from teaching and school administration, advocates for better funding for education. Emphasizing the importance of community and people working together, she says, “I am optimistic that you can address social issues in ways that in fact make a difference.”

…and the wisdom to know the difference.

Imam Malik Mubashshir has long worked against injustice, particularly racism and sexism, and he acknowledges that much has changed in his lifetime. As he approaches middle age, however, he is coming to realize that he won’t be able to change the world as much as he imagined when he was young.

“It seems naïve and funny to say it,” he admits. “Ultimately it’s not really mine to solve. I play my role, strut my hour on the stage, and then I’m gone. The idea is to try to do as much as I can, to the best of my ability, in community with other people of like mind, transform as much as we can, but this is not paradise, and it’s not likely to be paradise anytime soon. Psychologically, this is where spiritual trust in a benevolent Creator who has a plan is comforting. But it’s not a placebo. It’s not a cure-all because so much responsibility is on us.”

As a white activist, who cares about daunting issues like racism and climate change, I find Imam Mubashshir’s perspective helpful. To speak up for what is right without becoming bitter toward those who don’t listen is challenging, but remembering my trust in a benevolent Creator is comforting. And knowing people who have worked through anger or internalized oppression inspires me to change myself, since that is indeed one of the ways we can change the world.

Eileen Flanagan is the author of The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change–and When to Let Go. She teaches a class on race at University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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