6. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I CAN not change”
I did not begin the Serenity Drawings with the goal of creating Twelve Drawings. I didn’t see very many substantial words in the beautiful but brief Serenity Prayer. While words like “God” and “Courage” were captivating, there was nothing remarkable about words like “the” or “to” or “can” or “not”. For a moment, I actually wondered if such tiny words would even appear in the dictionary.
I flipped the crinkling pages 1934 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary open to the word: “Can v. to know how to.”
That was not at all what I expected. I thought the word might mean “To be able to”. I myself had used the word that way all my life:
• CAN you open this jar? “Yes, I am able to open it.”
• CAN I get to China on this road? “No, I am not able to reach China on this particular road.”
• CAN you touch your nose with your elbow? “No, I am not able to do that.”
I wondered if there was a mistake in Webster’s Dictionary. My definition couldn’t be wrong—could it? Then I realized there was something about the Serenity Prayer that always made me uneasy. Whenever I prayed about what I am able vs. unable to do, I became painfully aware that I did not know the difference—even after praying for wisdom.
My recovery had taught me not to close the door on new possibilities. I allowed my Higher Power to weigh in. Soon, I had a very powerful insight. All my life, I had used the word “can” two ways; both as “able to” and “to know how“. Here are some examples:
• CAN you speak Swahili? “No, I know nothing about speaking Swahili.”
• CAN you name all of the state capitals? “No. I once knew them all, but I am not able to recall them today.”
• CAN you help me work the Twelve Steps? “Yes, I know how and would be glad to help you.”
In these cases, the question was “Do you know how?” Was my 1934 Dictionary shedding any new light on the Serenity Prayer? I recited the prayer, but this time I placed the 1934 definition wherever the word “can” appears. It sounded like this:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I DO NOT KNOW HOW to change.”
I stopped suddenly. I reread the opening line, substituting the definition again. Silence came upon me for a long moment. This did not sound like the same prayer I had prayed a thousand of times before. There was a difference. It suddenly seemed like a very big difference.
Am I praying “Help me when I am unable” or “Help me when I don’t know how“?
The 1934 Dictionary suggests I should seek help when I don’t KNOW how to do something. I considered seeking other definitions in the dictionary. Even Joe & Charlie (of the Big Book Study) sometimes cherry-picked dictionary definitions. But the Big Book says part of my insanity (in the Twelve Step sense), includes my “inability to think straight”. I decided on that basis to avoid temptation. I stayed with the #1 definition.
The 1934 dictionary definition gave me the wisdom I had been missing. I can easily distinguish between something that I know how to change and something I don’t. So this new definition shifted the request from God to me. I was now asking myself whether I really KNEW HOW to handle what I was faced with.
• CAN I get a job as good as the one I lost? “I hope so, but to be honest, I don’t really know how in this economy.”
• CAN I wake up every day to a world of uncertainty? “I do know how to do that. I’ve done it all my life.”
• CAN I face my loved one’s grave illness? “I don’t want to, but I know how I can with the help of my Higher Power.”
These questions no longer mystify me. I can answer whether I know how or not. Very, very often, I do not know how. But that’s my point. Instead of the Serenity Prayer offering question marks, I now sense that it offers firm answers. If I don’t know how to do something, then my prayer is for Serenity. If I DO know how, then my prayer is for Courage. And if I am literally stumped and can’t tell what I know……. well, I surely need to pray for Wisdom.
With that definition in mind, I began considering how to illustrate this small but important word “Can”. The drawing poses a simple question about two pipe valves: “Can you operate both of these valves?” Prior to reading the dictionary, I would have answered, “Yes, my hands work fine, so I am ABLE to operate both types of valves.” But when using the 1934 definition, I would answer, “No, I do NOT know how to operate the complicated valve on the left. However, I DO know how to operate the simple valve on the right.”
For me, the “KNOW HOW” answer is more definite and therefore more serenity-inducing.
This knowledge has shifted what I get from the Serenity Prayer today. I now see my situation more clearly and that helps me see how my Higher Power might be needed most. I am not suggesting that you change your own understanding of the Serenity Prayer. But I would be negligent if I did not share how a 1934 Webster’s Dictionary has changed it for me.