Remember quote books? If not, these were the books that poetry nerds like me used to have many years ago, so we could document all our favorite quotations. I once received a quote book as a gift which on the front had Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:
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.
With all the quotations I captured over the years in my book, it was actually the one printed on the front that stuck with me the most. And I would realize different aspects of this prayer at various times throughout my life.
For me, the easiest to understand was the “courage to change the things I can”…in theory at least. Being a Sikh, I feel this is something I’ve learned early on. Gurbani reveals the traits, personality, and thinking of a gurmukh. I have always found myself distant from this ideal, so there is always work to do and progress to make. It’s almost hard to be complacent. If I am truly a student, I need to always be reflecting, learning, and finding ways to improve myself in order to move closer to the Guru.
“Accepting the things I cannot change” hasn’t been quite as easy. Especially as I’ve gotten older and experienced more hardship and loss. I’m constantly in battle with my ego and attachment, and although Guru Sahib gives me the tools to overcome this, to rise above the five vices and accept his hukam…I still struggle.
The “wisdom to know the difference” has really just been an afterthought. Frankly speaking, the categories of things I can change and cannot change have always been pretty black and white to me – so why the need for wisdom to know the difference?
I recently heard an audio essay titled ‘The Serenity To Change The Things I Can’ by Mark Olmstead from my favorite NPR series, “This I Believe” that challenged my beliefs and made me re-think the importance of “knowing the difference”, especially in my relationship with gurmat.
Often times when having gurmat-related discussions, with friends, at camp, or during gurbani veechar, I often find myself reflecting on the virtues of a gurmukh, not just the personal discipline but more so the internal qualities – compassion, humility, forgiveness, acceptance of hukam, seeing Waheguru in everyone etc. and conclude thinking to myself, ”Yup, it’s hard to reach that stage” and without even thinking about it, quietly tuck that away in my “accept the things I cannot change” category. It’s becomes easy for me to say, “Yeah, I’m just not there yet” and be content with that. It’s almost as though as long as I’m being honest with my weaknesses, it makes it okay.
That charade may work for a while, but it surely doesn’t when you have children. If I want to be a role model for my children, then I need to “walk the talk.” Although other adults may sympathize with my weaknesses – my kids, however, are not interested in my excuses. And do I really want to be that parent who has to constantly make excuses for himself, anyway?
In Olmstead’s essay, he accepted the fact he had to live in a litter-filled community…until he found the courage to create change, and by doing so, started to question what other things were possible. He states, “You can’t assume to know the difference between the things you must accept and the things that you can change—you have to think about it” – I couldn’t agree more.
So perhaps I need to re-examine the things I’ve long accepted as “things I cannot change”, and create some tangible goals for myself. Not everything might be possible right away, but something has to be. I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my challenge – my family and sangat are there to help me. As my wife and I recently discussed, sangat is not just people you listen to kirtan with, they are the people who inspire and encourage you on your path to the Guru…and perhaps, should hold you accountable toward your goals.
Such ruminations on change, acceptance, and well…litter, made me think of a story a friend recently shared. As a teenager in Amritsar, my friend would often run in to Bhagat Puran Singh. Sometimes he and his friends would join the legendary gursikh on his evening walks. During one of the walks, he noticed that Bhagat Ji would stop to pick up trash off the road and put it in his pocket. He would continually pick up trash throughout the course of the walk. Finally my friend asked, “BhagatJi, no matter how much trash you pick up, you will never clean all of Amritsar.” BhagatJi lovingly replied, “When it’s time for me to face my Master, he will not ask whether I’ve cleaned all of Amritsar…but he will ask whether I’ve cleaned my path”