In the late 90s, at the peak of the sit-com Seinfeld‘s popularity, an episode had Jerry Stiller, as Frank Costanza, employing a mantra to help control his blood pressure. Every time he got worked up–and he got worked up a lot–he would scream, “SERENITY NOW!” His son George wondered, “Are you supposed to yell it?”
I am an improver, a reformer, a perfector. I solve my family’s problems for them (mostly, now, only when they ask). I fix broken systems and processes at work. I have an eye for optimization. My first instinct is to say, “you know what would make that even better?” And there is just so much to improve in myself, in my family, in my neighbors, in the world.
Right now, I have no motivation to exercise. I want to sleep until the sun comes up, and spend the evening cozy under a blanket, reading a book or watching TV, with a glass (or bottle) of wine. I know better. And yet I am in my pajamas at 1 pm on a Sunday. I can’t decide if I should yell at myself to get it together or forgive myself for wanting to rest a bit. SERENITY NOW.
Right now, my son is a high school senior, and it’s college application time. Despite the presence of a bright red TICKING CLOCK on the application website, he doesn’t see why we need to push forward on this and would much rather wait to get the essays done until closer to the due date, because what would be the point of rushing? SERENITY NOW.
Right now, we are about a week away from an election where there is a non-zero chance that we could re-elect the most world’s most disgusting, dishonest, irresponsible and narcissistic human to the presidency. We are in a moment where my next door neighbor, in what I assume is a response to our Black Lives Matter sign, put up to accompany his Trump/Pence sign one that says “Law and Order Matters: Vote Republican.” Law and order matters more than the lives of Black people. Mmmkay. SERENITY NOW.
Right now, I am living in the eight month of a pandemic that has killed nearly 225,000 Americans, and things are getting worse, not better. My kids can’t go to school. And we are the lucky ones with jobs and health care, and in case one of those changes, savings to get us through. So many have it much worse. But it’s not costless, even for people like us who are lucky. My uncle died of Covid. We won’t be with our family on Thanksgiving. Dear friends came to sit on our deck last night, and we welled up as they left because caution and wisdom meant we couldn’t embrace to say goodbye. SERENITY NOW.
Am I supposed to be yelling it?
But things don’t get better. I mean, they do…a little. My day can get better (I had a headache this morning but it’s gone now). A life can get better (Mike used to be unemployed, but now he has a steady paycheck and can afford groceries). Even the overall wellbeing of a group or nation can get better (Married women couldn’t open bank accounts with their husbands’ permission, and now they can.) But at the macro level, the human condition remains peskily the same: not great.
People seek power and use it irresponsibly. We look for reasons to justify oppression. People kill and bruise and batter. Natural disasters annihilate communities. Someone lies. There always seem to be winners and losers. We make dumb mistakes over and over and over again. We simply won’t be perfected.
Serenity seems like an intellectual concept that is unavailable to me as a lived experience. Politics is awful. Poverty is awful. Racism is awful. The world is awful. I myself am frequently awful. Everything should be better and things are not okay. How can it be okay if nothing is okay?
And yet, for a split grace-filled second the other day, I had a vision of okay-while-not-okay.
What if the problem is that I’m looking at it as a jigsaw puzzle? I want to finish it and see the whole picture. The trouble is, I keep sorting the pieces but can’t find any with straight edges, and just when I manage to piece together a tiny little section, a toddler runs through and throws it on the ground and it falls apart and I have to start all over again, and I’m just about to give up on the whole enterprise.
What if the problem is that I’m looking at it as a group project for school? I would like to turn in this assignment and get an A or at LEAST a gold star, but the instructions are confusing, there are slackers in my group, our internet is down, and I’m pretty sure we will be LUCKY to eke out a C. Even worse, there’s a rumor that it’s just pass/fail. What if I’m not graded at all?
What if it is more like owning a home? You have to keep taking care of it. You patch up that hole in the wall, but then the bathroom sink starts dripping. You stop the slow leak there and find the paint is peeling on the porch. You mow the lawn on Saturday and it needs mowing AGAIN the next weekend. The house is never perfect, but you don’t burn the thing down, or decide to live in a cave instead, because for all its faults, it’s still your shelter. It might be a money pit, but at least it’s better than freezing in the cold?
What if it is more like tending a garden? You water and prune and weed. Sometimes there are pests that eat all the leaves and the whole thing is ugly. Sometimes the plants freeze and die. Sometimes they flower. You sweat. You get bitten by flies. You harvest what has grown, give thanks, and share it with your people. Then you go back to the garden tomorrow to water and prune and weed, and do it all over again, hoping the harvest will be sweeter and more bountiful this time.
What if serenity is letting go not just of the idea of perfection, but of the very idea of progress? Not because you capitulate to complacency or hopelessness, but because you see that the only way is both terribly simple and terribly challenging: to tend to the patch of earth you find yourself in today. To notice all the grief and beauty in the work itself. To allow yourself to imagine how sweet the fruits of the harvest will be while resisting bitterness that you may not get to taste them yourself. To hope for what might be while looking–clear-eyed and with abounding love–at what is.