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.

Thus reads one of the best-loved prayers of all: the Serenity Prayer. It is best-loved because it touches with refreshing frankness on the “something” in humanity that is a mixed blessing: Our freedom. Our ability to choose, decide, change. 

How can freedom be a mixed blessing? 

Freedom is core to our sense of self, but it is also vulnerable to the hard knocks of life, which can wound us to the core. Time after time of trying to change a particular thing that feels so unfair (but the efforts repeatedly fall short) leads to wounding. Time after time of things coming into your world you don’t want, but they come in anyway and they stay, wounds. 

The coming of the coronavirus into our world, and all the havoc that that has wreaked, is just one of these times. 

So there is a wounding that happens to our core. In some people, the wound grows into a full-fledged sense of victimhood, of passivity and fatalism.

In other people, the wound grows in the opposite direction and becomes a pattern of trying too hard, of carrying too many heavy things, of sheer denial that there should be anything beyond one’s control. The wound here is perfectionism.  

So, how we are responding to the coronavirus and to whatever else roars into our world and wreaks havoc depends upon what kind of wounding might have us in its grip. That is what we are bringing into awareness today. To what degree might we be lost in the illusion that nothing is in our control? To what degree might we be lost in the illusion that everything ought to be in our control? Is there a way we can more completely channel the holistic spirituality of the Serenity Prayer, and be more balanced and sane in our living? 

Start with the “nothing is in our control” illusion. 

Positive psychologist Martin Seligman calls this particular illusion “learned helplessness,” and in his laboratory he demonstrated what it looks like. His subjects were dogs—two groups of them. He started the experiment by establishing a different sense of agency in the different groups. This involved giving the dogs electric shocks. For one group, things were set up so that the dogs learned that they could act to stop those shocks. They could do something to end them. But for the other group, the set-up was different. No matter what the dogs tried to do, they couldn’t stop anything. In the end they learned abject helplessness. 

Having established this very different baseline sense of agency in the two groups of dogs, Seligman went on to the next phase of the experiment. In this phase, the set up was a cage divided by a low wall. On one side of the wall, the floor was electrified; but on the other side of the wall, the floor was normal. Here’s what happened in this phase. The dogs that learned earlier they could help themselves quickly figured out that the solution was to jump over the wall. As for the other group of dogs: they just sat down on the electrified floor. Sat there and suffered. Didn’t even try to figure out how to escape. 

The implication is clear: the traumas of the past can accumulate and pile up so high that we can’t see beyond them, to a reality that may be far more promising than we allow for. Seligman’s dogs which learned helplessness didn’t know any better than to suffer the electrified floor even though they could have escaped. And what about ourselves? Is there an electrified floor we’re sitting on, and we really could find relief if we really believed it possible and allowed ourselves to try? 

Let’s be proactive in fighting this illusion of helplessness. Teach our children from a young age what is within their power to do when a bad thing is happening. In this overwhelming coronavirus time, we can give them things to do. Help wipe down surfaces. Put stuff away. Cook. Maybe they won’t be able to do any of these things particularly well, but it’s a kindness to let them try. Teach them to be helpers. Yes, as Mr. Rogers has famously said, “Look for the helpers.” But our children can also become helpers in their own right. 

Let’s start this young. Minimize how the traumas of the past accumulate and take over. That’s why I believe heart and soul in Unitarian Universalist religious education. Empowering children is our mission–so they can learn to discover what is within their power to do with heavy things…

But what if we are not children, and we know all too well the pile-up of our personal traumas? What if, in fact, we are suffering along with those dogs lying down on the electrified floor, not believing they can do anything to make things better. What if we are really identifying with these dogs this morning? There is so much hurt in the world, and it can all feel so overwhelming, and compassion fatigue sets in, and everything feels hopeless, and you don’t know how or where to even begin. 

But that’s not reality. That is illusion. Perhaps what Martin Seligman did to help the dogs see through it will be instructive for us. Here’s what he did. He had to drag each helpless pooch over the wall. He had to directly give them a small concrete sense of change. They no longer believed they could do that for themselves. So he did it for them. 

Sometimes we just have to let ourselves be helped. Let ourselves be dragged over the wall. Maybe it’s just a weekly matter of showing up to this livestreamed worship service—just show up. Just make yourself available to it. 

Or maybe it’s reaching out to a friend and admitting that you’re feeling like a helpless pooch these days. Let your friend remind you of all the times you demonstrated strength, which demonstrates the lie of your helplessness. 

Let yourself be dragged over the wall. There are indeed heavy things you can change. Remember that.  

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.

But now, what’s this about “accepting the things we cannot change”? What!? What if I don’t want to accept that!?

This takes us to the opposite end of the illusion spectrum: that I and we ought to have control over our world. 

One realm of human life where this illusion dominates is in relationships. AM I IN A RELATIONSHIP WITH A CONTROLLER? screams the title of an Internet quiz by Dr. Judith Orloff PhD. (I’ve since come to learn that there are millions of quizzes like this out there—suggesting how ubiquitous the problem is.)

Question #1: Does this person keep claiming to know what’s best for you?
Question #2: Do you typically have to do things his or her way?
Question #3: Is he or she so domineering you feel suffocated?
Question #4: Do you feel like you’re held prisoner to this person’s rigid sense of order?
Question #5: Is this relationship no fun because it lacks spontaneity?

Can you relate at all to these questions? Have you experienced being controlled? Or is controlling perhaps something you tend to do?  

To what degree is stay-at-home cabin fever just making it worse? 

But listen to what Catholic scholar, mystic and monk Thomas Merton has said about what he calls “the beginning of love”: “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.” 

This time of coronavirus-necessitated stay-at-home cabin fever is really the time for love to begin, between people. 

Now more than ever. 

But back to the unwillingness to accept things we can’t change. The unwillingness shows itself everywhere, sometimes in very subtle ways. 

Consider the whole thing about hoarding toilet paper. Scholar Niki Edwards from Australia has something interesting to say (apparently they’re hoarding toilet paper “down under” too). Here’s what she says: “Toilet paper symbolises control. We use it to ‘tidy up’ and ‘clean up.’ It deals with a bodily function that is somewhat taboo. When people hear about the coronavirus, they are afraid of losing control. And toilet paper feels like a way to maintain control over hygiene and cleanliness.”

Just the latest example of the unwillingness to accept a thing we cannot change.

I feel this in myself these days, in the form of impatience. I’m dying to get back to skating. What I would give to go see a movie. What I would give to go to the Cleveland Art museum which this newcomer to Cleveland swears is one of the world’s best. (I’m just a little proud.) 

What I am really confessing is how I continually try to create the universe in the image of my own priorities and shoulds and must-haves. I am confessing: I want things to happen according to the schedule that seems right to me. I am confessing: I have all sorts of opinions about the big picture as if I am capable of really seeing the whole thing—as opposed to the bits and pieces of what I know. 

I am confessing, I am confessing.

Will you confess with me? 

But this illusion, like the other, is not invulnerable. A notable case in point is Twelve Step Spirituality, which is all about living into serenity, which is really about making peace with one’s human limitations. Making peace with the fact that one is not God. The very first step of the Twelve Steps: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” But we could equally re-write this to say, in this day and age, “We admitted we were powerless over our lives being upended by the coronavirus.” 

We’ve got to take these days one day at a time.

We’ve got to stop pushing the river. 

This, also, is a beginning of love, but for our lives. 

Now at this point I hasten to say that powerlessness over the basic existence of the coronavirus does NOT mean NO POWER AT ALL. Please exercise the power you do have these days by staying home. Unfortunately we can’t stop young people from milling about on Florida or California beaches and elsewhere during Spring Break—but we can stop ourselves from doing something equally irresponsible.

And when the time comes when we can safely re-enter the face-to-face social world: please vote. Don’t stay at home. How the current presidential administration has been managing the coronavirus situation is irresponsible and dangerous and will cost us lives. This is just one item in a nauseatingly long laundry list of ill achievement. 

This is just one reason why everyone needs to vote. Don’t stay at home then

Powerlessness does not mean no power at all. 

In fact, I would like to point out that the power we do have actually comes in different expressions, and that some expressions are better at some times than at others.

Here are two ways of expressing our power: hard power and soft power. Have you heard this distinction before? Hard power is self-assertive. Your vote is an example of such. There’s no mistaking what hard power aims to do: to make the world conform to one’s own expectations and ideals. 

Soft power, on the other hand, is the power to let go and relax. Soft power is like floating face-up in a pool of water and you just let the water carry you, you don’t try to take charge and end up thrashing about. Soft power is exactly what enabled Whimsey in the story from earlier to get to a more creative place in dealing with all her heavy things.

Our current situation is really a time for soft power. Soft power is the power that enables us to do what Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron invites us into: “Letting there be room for not knowing. [It] is the most important thing of all. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don’t know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don’t know.”

In a time like ours: more of this. 

Writer Sylvia Boorstein gives the “this” a name that might be surprising. She calls it “surrender.” She says, “I’ve discovered there are only two modes of the heart. We can struggle, or we can surrender. Surrender is a frightening word for some people,” she goes on to say, “because it might be interpreted as passivity, or timidity. Surrender means wisely accommodating ourselves to what is beyond our control.” 

Soft power. Surrender power.

We must use the power we do have differently. 

Several years back I officiated at the memorial service of a lovely person, Lois McGukin. She had been a librarian. She had opened up nothing less than universes to children, through books. So many wonderful stories were told about her.

I told a story. It had to do with the Christian prayers she began to write after being diagnosed with dementia. The dementia reality came into her life and no exertion of hard power could stop it. Dementia was a thing beyond her power to control, a 13-year-long journey of it, until her death. 

With her soft, surrender power, Lois stayed resilient and she kept moving forward, one day at a time. She opened up a big space for not-knowing. She allowed unexpected events to happen along the way.

Which takes us straight to the Christian prayers that unexpectedly came to her, which she started writing down. For instance: 

Father, help me be kind and gentle, starting with myself…

Lois knew very well how her dementia was progressively emptying her of herself. It bothered her. She was trying to make peace with it, cope, self-soothe. 

God give me sympathy and sense
and help me keep my courage high.
God give me calm and confidence
and please … a twinkle in my eye. 


Fear knocked on the door. 
Faith answered. 
No one was there….

In this practice of prayer, Lois drew from the spirituality of her father, the Reverend David Weems, a staunch missionary. Dementia can blend past and present together seamlessly. She had never prayed before—all her life she had considered herself a faithful Unitarian Universalist humanist and agnostic—but at this stage of her life journey, well, prayer felt right. Prayer felt like home. Prayer was sweet comfort. 

I am not all I should be (she says) or could be, Father. 
But I’m working on it. 
You will help me, won’t you? Thanks!


Dear Lord, help me live in trust that no matter how confusing the challenges I face today are, you will give me whatever wisdom I need to confront them. 

Right there is Lois’ faith, Lois’ source of hope: Not that God would prevent challenges from happening, but that resources for facing those challenges would come her way, would be made available to her.

Whatever our differing theologies happen to be in our West Shore community, right now, we can’t do any better than affirming the hope that Lois affirmed. Hope that, no matter what, we will be helped to show up to our lives. 

Hope that, if we need it, someone’s going to come and drag us over the wall.

“Don’t despair,” says the atheist Alain de Botton: “despair suggests you are in total control and know what is coming. You don’t – surrender to events with hope.” 

Death comes to us all. Things we hate happen. Mass shootings. Unethical and destructive politicians. Pandemics. 

So many tears were shed at that memorial service for Lois, and perhaps the tears keep flowing still. 

But with all the soft power we possess, let us pray: 

I forgive all the ways in which my life appears to fall short.
I trust that whatever I truly need will find its way into my life, when I most need it.
I am grateful for what I have.

Let us pray: 

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.

Let us pray.