Things I Can

My wife started helping me long before we were formally helping each other, you know, in the helpmeeting sense.

We were friends for a long time, neighbors, long enough to see each other for who we were, and why we’d absolutely never work as a couple (we were very clear on that). I actually came to see our relationship as one in which God was teaching me about seeing that God was at work without me getting involved. Angie didn’t need to go to my church, or take my classes, or read my copy of Important Spiritual Book, or listen to my mix-tapes to be involved in the life God had for her. Even with all this goodness right next door. In fact, I might be growing a bit from having her perspective on what I was doing.

It’s true, I was an egomaniac. (“Was,” you may ask?)

I was also a conservationist, I thought. This consisted of a number of great ideas I had about what everybody should be doing to save our planet, a few convicting t-shirts and posters, biting cynical quips towards Wal-Mart (especially when I was shopping there), and a growing Hefty bag of aluminum cans I was collecting. That, especially, was my environmental conscience at work: saving the planet one artificially-flavored mass-produced beverage at a time.

That bag didn’t actually make it to a recycling drop-off, although I lived within a few blocks of one at the apartment where I began the good work. Not much further when I moved it with me across the road to my next address. I still knew where those drop-offs were at my third residence with the bag of cans, which became part of a game my future helpmeet and our then roommates liked to play that involved the noise it made when you hit it with an object hurled down our hallway. That rattledy bag became a symbol and an inside joke for us of my sense of being a conscientious environmentalist without having to do anything about those good ideas. They made sure it was loaded into my UHAUL for my move across three states, just to give the ongoing joke a solid punch-line.

We still laugh about it, sometimes. It represents my need to take myself less seriously. It also represents my tendency to take too seriously a self that is really only an unwieldily, noisy collection of intentions that there’s no need to keep around any more. Much less drag from place to place or state to state, as if the next change of scenery might also result in a change of character or habits; as if resolve itself might get that bag to the bin where it belongs.

I’ve tended to resist making New Year’s resolutions. I told myself that this was because I had enough to do already, but I am more aware this year of my resistance to commit to it. Having a long list of circumstantial stressers or dreaded tasks does not account for the use of my time and energy towards any particular ends; it accounts for the drain on my time and energy as I’ve managed the stress and fear that I attached to those circumstances and tasks. I became afraid of resolve itself, but it was because of a false sense of what I am and am called to do.

There’s a well known prayer, the “Serenity Prayer,” sometimes relegated to the keychain collection of Christian bookstores and Self-Help section of Barnes & Noble, but it started out in the mind of one of the most significant Western theologians of the 20th century, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr. The simple genius of this prayer, which is foundational material for many people experiencing crises, beginning healing, or continuing recovery, is partly its capacity to humbly ground the speaker in who they are and what they are called to do. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” which is just about all of my circumstances and their occupants, “the courage to change the things I can,” which is a great way to focus my to do list, “and the wisdom to know the difference.” And there’s the rub.

That’s where the growth is. Acceptance and change are hard work, but so are maintaining the illusions that make for denial and resistance; willfull, exhausting, irresoluteness. There’s better work, if you can get it.

If asked, I would have to say I’m not a conservationist. I love the idea, and admire the good ones. My institutional ties mean my recycling gets sorted by somebody else. I make a habit of going trayless, remember my cups & mugs, and try to get those reusable shopping bags back in the trunk of the right vehicle. But, unless those things make me a conservationist, I’d say I’m just making fair progress as a global citizen. Fair, at best. So, there’s a quick list of a few things I’ve changed over the last few years. Maybe I’ll add one or two for 2012.

I’ve got some work to do in the area of “the things I can.” But in the area of accepting what I can’t change, I’m getting some freedom just by not carrying around that bag any more. The bag of cans is long gone, but I’ve lugged around a lot of baggage full of things totally above my pay grade, totally beyond my capacity to produce, control, or accomplish; often in the unchangeable past or unpredictable future. I’ve carried mental and emotional uniforms for labels of -isms and -ists that I’ve put on myself (and others) and then built up insurmountable expectations around those. Expectations that, often, once I was willing to recognize them, I saw as completely unreasonable. Yet, unexamined, I just carried them on to the next place and the next place, assuming that one of these days I’ll get around to taking care of that. Maybe a new location or roommate or schedule or girlfriend would help. Like a guy who thinks he’s a conservationist because he’s got a bag full of cans, and can’t get rid of that bag of cans because he’s not really a conservationist, he’s a procrastinator with a guilt complex (and egomaniac).

God, grant me serenity. This year, I’m going to try and resolve a few things. I resolve to take stock of who I am, and confess the things I’ve claimed to be that I simply am not. I resolve to release the baggage that is unnecessary to who I really am and what I’m really called to. I resolve to recognize how I’m doing with all that, and to call somebody up and let them know.

There are a few more things on that list, but I’ve resolved to stay honest online, while I maintain healthy boundaries of vulnerability with potential virtual strangers. But I’m glad you came by.

I’m getting around to seeing myself a little more like I started learning to see others as I got to know my wife, who turned out to be the best help I’ve had. Turns out I’m a better help to myself when I stop trying to change what I’ve got and accept that God has something in mind for me that is better than the ideas I’ve been chasing down and lining up all this time. I’m grateful to be getting a little of the wisdom to know the difference between my ideas and his. Here’s to more of that in the next 365.




12 responses to “Things I Can

  1. Who says nothing changes on new years day? Well I know that rock singer did. Perhaps someone should question that guy’s authority on such things. Anyway, thanks Dave for the inspiration.


  2. The sermon of the week . . . No, year . . . No, decade. Recovery is painful but freedom does come, with tears, in incremental movements that are sometimes almost imperceptible until they suddenly turn dramatic. Much love and hope and encouragement to you, my dear nephew-in-the-Spirit.


  3. Good stuff. God is already teaching me how to have enough wisdom to discern what are skirmishes vs battles. And to remember what victories are already claimed by Him.


    • so well said, Lia! God wins! I have trouble picking my battles, and sometimes not getting involved in other peoples’ battles. Thanks for the comment.


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