The Riverton Mussar’s definition of equanimity begins, “Equanimity is about having balance, level-headedness and calmness of spirit.” Equanimity is a middah, the ability to maintain balance in the face of the disorienting events of life. Serenity, a component of equanimity, is a state of being marked by utter calm. You just can’t maintain that balance without calm, without serenity—and the more serenity, the better.
A few years ago I had to deal with a threatening event over which I had no control and which made me feel utterly helpless, vulnerable, and angry—and equanimity was nowhere to be found. My wife Anna has long been the one I turn to in such situations, but she was struggling (though not as much as I) with the same emotions. So I phoned a trusted friend, a fellow rabbi who always seemed to handle these kinds of situations with calm. I explained my situation to him, hoping for some practical advice. You can’t imagine my surprise when he explained the Serenity Prayer to me and recommended that it become a regular part of my spiritual practices.
The Serenity Prayer—I had always thought that it was a bit of Pop Psychology or a thinly-veiled self-help mantra. Although I saw the value of twelve-step programs that happen to use the Serenity Prayer, I didn’t realize how central the concepts of the Serenity Prayer are to deal with a life spun out of control.
So I decided to accept my friend’s advice; after all, I had nothing to lose. I began to pray the prayer and to think about it. The more I did, the more sense it made to me.
(Meanwhile, I googled “Serenity Prayer” and Judaism, discovering that the kosher version, which is identical to the non-kosher version, only it begins with G-d, grant me!)
G-d, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
I figured that accept couldn’t mean being utterly indifferent to the great mass of things I can’t change, including all the suffering in the world. Serenity isn’t nirvana and it isn’t indifference. It simply means to accept completely that I, Carl Kinbar, have utterly no ability to change most situations and that it is utterly corrosive to my mind and spirit to think that I can. (Note: this doesn’t mean that I can’t pray about these things.)
Courage to change the things I can.
This isn’t such an issue for me, but I trusted my friend’s advice so I prayed it, too.
And the wisdom to know the difference.
“Ay, there’s the rub,” as Hamlet says. There’s the difficulty—knowing for sure what I can and can’t change is way beyond my pay scale. I needed divine assistance or I would end up with the “serenity” to accept things I can change and foolishness to keep on trying to change the things I can’t.
I continued seriously praying the Serenity Prayer (the kosher version, of course) and started receiving the serenity, courage, and wisdom I asked for. I also briefly meditated on the prayer when I began to lose my grip. Slowly, slowly, the situation that had caused me such distress began to morph into just one of those things that I can’t change. And I was receiving the wisdom to know which new situations were also beyond my ability to influence. So I kept on praying the Serenity Prayer regularly, and still do, because it turns out that the simple issues it addresses are also among the most profound issues of life.
According to the Serenity Prayer, serenity enables me to “accept the things I cannot change.” I would argue that serenity is accepting the things I can’t change. It enables me to deal with new situations from a totally different perspective than I did before. It’s the foundation of equanimity, which is a balanced response to the issues of life, whether or not I can influence their outcome.