serenity

Things That Matter

There was a time when God became so distant that we were almost ready to deny Him, had psychologists or sociologists not been willing to permit us to believe in Him. And how grateful some of us were when told ex cathedra that prayer is not totally irrelevant because it does satisfy an emotional need.

To Judaism the purpose of prayer isn’t to satisfy an emotional need. Prayer is not a need but an ontological necessity, an act that constitutes the very essence of man. He who has never prayed is not fully human. Ontology, not psychology or sociology, explains prayer.

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
“An Ontological Necessity,” p.78
Man’s Quest for God

I suppose a definition of Ontology is in order:

Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

That sounds very abstract and even cold, especially when applied to the intimacy of prayer, but I see where Heschel is coming from. Periodically, you may read about studies that say people who pray have less anxiety than those who don’t, or they (we) recover from illnesses faster than those who don’t pray. Prayer, from this perspective, is put in the same category as meditation, which doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the existence let alone the absolute necessity of God in our human lives. Thus prayer has value from the atheist’s point of view because it is a psychologically valid method of reducing stress or otherwise providing for a state of well-being.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel

But Heschel is saying that prayer is the reality of our existence, providing vital linkage with the source of our lives and the very author of all creation. Prayer is what gives a sense of completeness to our being, which is probably why Heschel says (outrageously, from an atheist’s point of view) that he “who has never prayed is not fully human.”

So in prayer we realize our full humanity, but in doing so, we collide head on with our vulnerability, our frailty, our mortality, with everything that separates us from God as well as what binds us to him.

Prayer also brings us perspective:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

You probably recognize the Serenity Prayer which is regularly said at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings around the world. This prayer connects rather nicely with the image I placed toward the bottom of today’s “morning meditation” (scroll down).

I saw that diagram taped near the desk of one of my co-workers and, in considering the ongoing process of teshuvah, it made a great deal of sense. In the effort of making that 180 degree turn away from sin and toward God, a lot of information and emotion is thrown up in the air, like a sandstorm obscuring vision. How can I see when I’ve made my complete turnaround and know when I’m facing the right direction so I can begin to proceed if I’m confused by all the things that matter that I can’t control and all the things that don’t matter that I can?

The Serenity Prayer seems to be how to ask God to let you see through the sandstorm and pick out only those specific details that are necessary for you (or me) to start walking toward Him.

Why do we need serenity?

I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:12-13 (NASB)

I maintain that only a person who is highly elevated spiritually can possibly stand in the eye of the hurricane and dispassionately watch the tempest rage and completely surround him. The rest of us would be running for the storm cellar.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a goal to shoot for, even if achieving it is years or a lifetime in the making.

I’ve mentioned before the seven steps in achieving teshuvah (repentance) which interestingly enough, are sort of connected to the 12 steps that are fundamental to Alcoholics Anonymous. It would seem that the process of recovering from additions can be extended to the process of “recovering” from all manner of sins, at least from the Jewish perspective.

thingsA couple of days ago I commented on something written by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman or rather, one of the comments made in response to his writing:

And 12-Step groups call this “Willingness.”
Wow – I keep seeing how the 12-step recovery coincides with Judaism, it is beautiful.

Would it sound too crazy to suggest something called “Teshuvah Anonymous?”

God help me to accept the things I cannot control, understand all the things that matter, and focus on those things that matter I can control. For only there will my efforts be successful in changing my life so that I behave toward others with greater compassion, kindness, and care, and only there will I find my path to You in prayer.

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12 thoughts on “Things That Matter”

  1. And speaking of serenity, this arrived in my email inbox this morning:

    In thinking about serenity and realizing its great value, we would love to be serene all the time. But this is not possible in the world in which we live. In the totality of our lives we will experience a wide range of human emotions, not all of them the ones we would choose for ourselves if we could have total control over our feelings.

    So now we have a choice. We can acknowledge our emotional reality at any given moment and from there work our way to true serenity. Or we can deny our true feelings. We may deny our insecurities, anxieties, worries, frustrations, disappointments, etc., and think that because we want to be serene, these feelings do not exist. Let us state clearly: Only by being in touch with your feelings will you be able to truly experience serenity.

    -Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
    Daily Lift #219: Be Real With Your Feelings
    Aish.com

  2. …we have a choice. We can acknowledge our emotional reality at any given moment and from there work our way to true serenity. Or we can deny our true feelings. We may deny our insecurities, anxieties, worries, frustrations, disappointments, etc., and think that because we want to be serene, these feelings do not exist. Let us state clearly: Only by being in touch with your feelings will you be able to truly experience serenity.

    -Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

    I say yes to that.

    I read the comments section after the beginning Heschel quotation.
    Then I went back and read the rest of the meditation. I see worth in identifying what is important that one can control, but not everything is about control. That in itself is a problem.

    I went to two or three counseling sessions with the father of my children (as well as one years ago in which I also saw how worthless it was going to be). He maintained “control” while there, staying calm and pretending he had thought counseling was a good idea (as you’re not going to get the counselor on your side by admitting you didn’t want to go and don’t see the point). Then, when we weren’t with the couselor, I got yelled at for his having to think about things he doesn’t want to think about, like lying, yelling (and the effect on me) and arguing it’s fine to have interest in other women (all women and co-ed nudity — men too), and the fact he had to PAY to feel like he felt after having to talk. He felt bad, and he had to PAY for it. Paying shouldn’t even be the point of going to counseling, but the fact of the matter was he hadn’t paid for anything — not health insurance, not a co-pay, not the full bill that was due because health insurance wasn’t involved [although it was readily available]. But he had every right to yell and complain. Over money and over the fact he shouldn’t have to think about feelings, anxieties, realities. He remained in control, making sure everyone around shuts up about anything he doesn’t want to hear. And part of what he doesn’t want to hear (but which we didn’t get to in session) is that he acts like he doesn’t have to care what is going on with anyone besides himself because he’s the one with money. He knows he’s in control.

  3. Serenity, as the diagram above shows is within a small place in your own life in which you have both control and power to affect results that pertain particularly to you and you alone.

    I was once a very controlled and controlling person. Then I was in a car accident, broke my neck, suffered PTSD, and short term memory loss, along with some electrical problems that haShem is still putting back together for me. That was nearly 20 years ago. I am a great deal improved, but with a lot of room left for Abba to direct my healing in accordance with my spiritual growth.

    The first 8 years was a total loss of control…actual helplessness, in fact, where I had no ability to direct events, financial, medical, legal, spousal, or family. I was confined to my house for 8 years in a rural mountain community of Southern California that has no transportation for anyone provided, unless you can pay the very high fees of a taxi to a town an hour away. If you do not have a car, or cannot drive it, you are stranded. If you are stranded, and physically helpless, financially undone, and abandoned by spouse and even family, due to their own difficulties, you find out very quickly how little your ability is to adapt to the fact that you are in control of nothing except when you eat and sleep, or visit the bathroom, and that only at the expense of great pain. You are at the mercy of others and you find out just how much fear there is behind all that attempt to control things.

    I yelled a lot, and was angry a lot for the first 4 years or so. Anger didn’t change anything. Eventually, I chose not to be angry at what was outside my power, which was very limited during those 8 years, because I could do nothing to change the situation. I learned to let go of the control bit by bit, tossing my problems to Abba, since He was the only one who could do anything about it. But learning to let go of the idea that I can control anything is still a very hard thing to do. I still try to be in control of what I can, but my scope of ability is rather limited. Thus I still have very little ability to control much of anything, except that I can actually drive again, and keep my appointments, or get groceries. I do not have sufficient stamina to regain my career, nor the physical ability to be the superficially successful person I used to be.

    What I realised, eventually, was that I never really had had that total control that I worked so hard at. When I had ability to work, and health, I was able to fool myself that I was running my life. Not so…my life was running me. I merely was able to make the surface of my life look smooth and glossy and sophisticated and in control. One car crash and life got very messy. But in the end, controlling what I thought, and how I prayed, and how much time I spent with Abba, thanking Him for what He had given me, and was showing me in the midst of all the loss of control of my life got me at least in partial control of the serenity people talk about, and I am at peace a good deal of the time these days, nearly twenty years after I nosedived into a gigantic drainage ditch at high speed.

    Letting go of the idea that I had any power or ability to make much of a mark on life was the best thing that ever happened to me. For most people, it is not so much that they are able to control their lives…it is the belief that they can, and the constant effort to do so that causes all the problems. The belief in control…of even having the ability to control anything is the essence of pride in the human animal, and the source of the search for personal power. Wealth can buy that ability, and control, and power for a time, but the moment your health and your family are no longer there, frustration is all you will feel, and the resentment and anger that all that frustration creates, and the fear of helplessness that underlies it.

    The pride that underlies the idea that we actually have control is at the root of the inability to suffer being out of control, and it is a hard lesson to be humbled so definately. But the serenity is nice, once you realize that how you live your life is very much at the grace of G-d, and the kindness of strangers.

  4. [We didn’t “get to” it, but we didn’t have to; the counselor touched on it. The person who has been “working” all these years is the winner. And the person who doesn’t care about truth and honesty and fairness and personal respect is the most powerful. (Ive actually read a recommended book on this.) Never mind he’s conservative and what I’ve been doing is about his children. Although I married him when I was very young, this is not a husband.]

  5. @Marleen: I think you are misunderstanding what I mean when I say “control”. I mean that there are a lot of things that matter (and many we only think matter but don’t) that we want to have an impact on that are outside the realm of our influence. Many people waste a lot of time worrying about things they can’t control or have any impact upon and that’s how anxiety disorders are born.

    All I’m saying is that in matters of teshuvah, we can’t for example, undo the sins of the past. That’s outside of our control. So we need to define what we do have control over in our lives, our current and future behavior for example, and focus our efforts there. Make sense?

    @Questor: I think your self-disclosure supports what I’m trying to say very well. Thank you.

  6. The thing is, James, many people who need to be repenting and sometimes (or even often or insistently) say words that seem like teshuvah are twisted around in their heads and think they are supposed to be controlling and dominant or bossy (and fault those wronged for not continuing to be naive — or maybe stupid after you see what is really going on — and “forgive” (aka let them go on in their disrespect).

    The person I referred to is someone who acts in conflict with the quotation I agreed with (he wanting simply to force and look as if to have peace both in himself and with others closest to him like it’s their obligation to pretend too). People like that use what seems to be the formula; they must be corrected (and their impressions can be countermanded along with teaching good ways). You recently brushed that off in the case of a different person too.

    I did say, “I see worth in identifying what is important that one can control, but….” Thus, I do understand what you meant — although you may assume I don’t if you feel like it, which is apparently how you do feel. [I agree, by the way, that there are things people can think are important that may not be or certainly aren’t. And that can overlap with what I’m saying.]

    While I DO understand what you meant, there is also more that has to be recognized, because there is such thing as religious abuse or plain evil (as well as mental illness and as well as plain confusion) that professionals and clerics tend to fall for or miss (and even promote). So do conservatives, politically, miss these; who don’t put pieces of real life together (on the more positive side, that of ignorance) or who grasp and value mainly the pieces that are in favor of themselves (on the negative).

  7. @James

    You are welcome. I disclose my history only to give you some reason to believe I know wherewith I speak.

    “In the effort of making that 180 degree turn away from sin and toward God, a lot of information and emotion is thrown up in the air, like a sandstorm obscuring vision. How can I see when I’ve made my complete turnaround and know when I’m facing the right direction so I can begin to proceed if I’m confused by all the things that matter that I can’t control and all the things that don’t matter that I can?”

    In the turning from anything, from the life you once led and towards the life you are attempting you must stop in the midst of the turn, and let all the things that matter but are out of your control to separate from those things that are in your control. I only learned this in watching my life come to a complete halt, and from being kept from doing much of anything until all the shattered bits of my life, and other’s lives fell to the ground.

    Unfortunately, the things that matter that you can control are mostly within the reach of your fingertips, your own deliberate actions, and most are within your emotions, your mental habits, and your ability to discipline your thinking and your behaviour. So much that is in our lives is happening to us or around us…we are merely experiencing the effect of the wind of other people’s turbulent lives rushing into and out of our awareness, battering us just as a gust of wind can do.

    One’s pattern of habits and habitual actions, such as getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed are all things you control, but are only of consequence when that habit pattern is violently disrupted, as my habit patterns were. Laying down new patterns of thinking and acting is complicated and difficult to do whether as a child or an adult, and takes years to accomplish properly. One prays for help in that turning from ways we are discarding to the ways of righteousness and kindness to others as well as the obedience we owe G-d, for if it is not enabled by Him, we do not accomplish the entire turning.

    Visually, one needs to freeze frame all that you do and think and say, as well as all that is being done to you by others speaking and doing, and start separating out what is important, and what is also within your control for the moment you have frozen in time as a mental snapshop of your reality, for the picture cannot stay still. The way your life is interconnected with others has to be considered, and left alone until you have determined that something you do not control that affects you does not need to have attention paid it anymore. One can envision a picture of one’s life with all the bits and pieces of what is going on as so much visual confetti frozen in the air around you that must be sorted through, and most of it discarded before you can complete the 180 degree turn you are attempting. And terribly, one then sees the onslaught of more life actions, your own, and others, coming at you that must be sorted and kept or discarded so that you can see where to even place your feet in the hurricane of activity.

    Taking the steps back into your awareness, and isolating what you can really do something about is key to doing teshuvah, and to gaining serenity. Blocking out what does not concern you seems cold, and uncaring, but bleeding internally over what is not within your own hands to amend is pointless. One can take a glance at the world, and pray for the welfare, comfort and healing of others once you are in practice of sorting what matters and what doesn’t, and only when you can sort the information rather quickly…most of it is external to your life, even though it does affect you eventually, as changes in society always do. The rest of the time, one tends to keep your eyes on your own footsteps in the attempt to place them where they should go, once you have discerned that path.

    It is the discerning of where you are to go, and how you are going to place your feet that makes step #7 of the list of actions to do teshuvah so complicated to enact. Figuring out your own narrow pathway in the chaos around you is perpetually difficult because it is constantly changing. It is only with a practiced ability to sort the chaos and decline much of the information assaulting you, that you can select the possibilities of action presented you, and refuse to acknowledge everything else that is in your life that you can do nothing about.

    Once you have only a handful of decisions to really consider, the path becomes clear, and one needs then only to rustle up the energy and determination to walk the path you see. And again, this is enabled by G-d, for in the confusion of what is all around you, and feeling battered, broken and bleeding by the onslaught of the mere events in your life, you need to lean heavily on your trust in G-d’s enablement of your doing teshuvah, for in the end, we still can do nothing of ourselves.

  8. It’s very possible to only tend to one’s own life and specific things one does of oneself. But if only that, then we wouldn’t have discussions (whether online or in person) or read books (unless they would be the most dry, disembodied manuals of Greek maxim on the human machine (which, I think, would be fairly pointless). Interesting, the Bible has many stories about people (even though we’re not supposed to gossip and past sins are to be forgiven). We talk about them all the time.

    All I’m saying is that in matters of teshuvah, we can’t for example, undo the sins of the past. That’s outside of our control. So we need to define what we do have control over in our lives, our current and future behavior for example, and focus our efforts there. Make sense?

    I’m going to comment on this to try and better illustrate what I’m saying. For instance, you say “we can’t undo the sins of the past.” “So we need to define what we do have control over in our lives…and focus effort there.” You said something about behavior. So, consider…

    A man who has not demonst… no, better go with a woman: a woman (or the fundamentalists among us will entirely miss the point, although they are likely to miss it anyway) — a woman hasn’t demonstrated fidelity in her marriage (doesn’t tend to the well being of her family, is easily distracted, and hasn’t been faithful). Then she “apologizes,” later saying in sorriness she’s going to be faithful to her husband and attentive to her children… “just like I’ve always been.” Well, you’ve got you’re apology, your “sorry,” and your statement of proper or desired future action. But, wait… what was that? And what if you say, “but you haven’t ‘been'” (youre wondering what she’s really saying or if she’s insane or if she’s hoping to scare you off) and she says, “why are you bringing up the past?” Hold on here, who brought up the past? She acts like you’re delusional about both the past itself and who brought up the past. She’s convinced she can pull this off (whether pulling it off means snowing everyone at church, that she cares, or whether it means convincing you to comply with her whitewash and just go on). She asks what you’re trying to accomplish. All that matters is now. You don’t really want a future, do you? Or you wouldn’t “bring up” the past.

    When my children were growing up, I never told them to say they were sorry like that’s all there is to it. In fact, I don’t think I ever required them to say “I’m sorry.” There’s nothing wrong with those words, and I did model saying it at times as an example (which they then learn). But what was required was to search yourself and think through what you did wrong and state what you did wrong [it’s wrong, and you did it]. You state it to those around, including whoever you wronged. And you don’t require anything of the person wronged. Again, model that. Everyone wants to go on and do positive things. So/But you don’t tell the wronged person, “now you have to hug him.” Or whatever.

    I was training little people who were capable of maturing. And they did. Apparently, not everyone is capable of that. Well, they are. But they have other priorities (sometimes ingrained by training).

    [ I hope you can see that not only do you not know any of the people to whom I’m referring, I’m not asking for advice. So you don’t need to worry about me in the situation, nor about gossiping. Now, if it’s confessional you’re looking for or prefer, I’m sorry to dissappoint; you wouldn’t want to hear it. It’s not like what people get up and divulge to the evangelical audience. It’s about my conservative upbringing. And believe me, I’ve cried over it… how long and what pain it took me to get over the indoctrination, my culpability in propogation. It’s a mixed matter; a lot of good came out if it and still does.]

  9. @Questor: I’ve heard it said it takes six-weeks to establish a new habit or extinguish an old one. Problem is, six-weeks seems like a long time when facing a years-long bad habit. Teshuvah is a battlefield or so it can seem.

    @Marleen: Teshuvah is a decision to make life-altering changes in one’s life by sometimes radically changing our behavior. Making a decision is easy but sticking to it over the long-haul is difficult. Some people never make the decision. Others make the decision a thousand times but never follow through. As it is said, “everything is in the control of Heaven except fear of Heaven.” We are each responsible ultimately to God for what we’ve done and failed to do. Some people never change and those who change for the better only do so by turning to God.

  10. @James “@Questor: I’ve heard it said it takes six-weeks to establish a new habit or extinguish an old one. Problem is, six-weeks seems like a long time when facing a years-long bad habit. Teshuvah is a battlefield or so it can seem.”

    I have heard thirty days…either way it is a battlefield worked out on a one day basis, and I certainly have trouble making just to the second day before offending again. it was why I was describing the onslaught of actions and information coming at you as something one needs to freeze frame in one’s mind, and discard everything that isn’t part of your doing the teshuvah you have decided to do. All that “stuff” happening is a massive distraction from laying down the daily part of forming a new habit, as per example – a renewed dedication to scrupulous truth telling, even in the little things related to honesty, such as telling someone the full and complete answer to the question they have just asked, while knowing it is going to cause a firestorm of emotionalism in whom you are telling the real, total truth to…and no matter how gently it is done, and how lovingly, no one really likes getting the truth for the first devastating minutes of receiving it…until they get enough of the truth to realize that you are not battering them with it, but just actually being totally open with them.

    And then of course, you have to do it all again, every hour of the rest of the day, until it is more trouble to be dishonest than to lie, and keep things peaceful. And laying down the immediate impulse to tell the full and complete truth actually has to be fought with when the persons asking for information are 1) not able to handle the entire truth, such as young children when one must be honest, but simplistic, or 2) stating information in a diplomatic, tactful way that does not attack the questioners motives, or their person simply because they asked the question.

    After all that, alas, you still have another 29 days or six weeks minus one day of devastating truth telling before you actually prefer it. The people around, however, will probably not prefer being told the real truth for as much as two or three years, and if emotionally troubled, maybe never. The fact that G-d relishes you actually learning to do such things is the only good part of teshuvah…He at least is pleased that you are trying so hard to do as He asks, even when you fail consistently, as I seem to do.

    I try to only work on one tendency to sin at a time as it comes up in my life…trying to fix everything I need to change only causes chaos. And yet, I certainly seem to need to do teshuvah in a lot of ways frequently, but can only see that making the 180 degree turn in my life in regard to one particular sin at a time, even while I am still sinning in other ways, because it is all that works. I don’t seem able to start out a day, and say, “I’m going to be obedient from now on in all ways,” and actually manage such obedience.

    This is where taking on regular, recognized habits of some kind that is considered honest, law abiding, and within socially acceptable norms is useful…such as Orthodox Messianic Judaism, if one only knew what that was for a Gentile. I cannot help but recall the murder victims and/or murder suspects in Agatha Christie’s novels are always described as having been a ‘person of regular habits’, and wonder how to add into my life those ‘regular habits’ that are so valued in respectable society, much less acquire those that G-d desires.

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