I adore laboring under the illusion of control. It is, so very often a very comforting illusion. The only problem is that it is...well...illusory. How can I possibly actually know what happens next or be certain that I know what today will bring?
This is the time of year when I receive a lot of emails, phone calls, texts, and direct tweets asking me whether I am going to be at the annual meeting for Unitarian Universalists. My response is often greeted in return by a pause. Why? Because I answer: "I'm planning to be there. And, God willing, I will be there." I have my reservations, my block of time set aside, my plans made about attending the big meeting. But where or whither I go is yet to be revealed. Living in that awareness is a spiritual practice I've been cultivating lately, as I say goodbye to lots of illusions of expectations of what I'd be doing this spring. Bringing the practice of awareness of how much isn't in my control into my speech is challenging for me, and for some of the folks with whom I'm speaking.
This yearning to be in control of what the day will bring, to know what happens next, isn't a modern invention. There's a wisdom tale, from the Jewish tradition, about a rabbi crossing the village square for morning prayers, as was his custom every day. One day, en route to prayer, the rabbi is violently stopped. "Where are you going?" asks his accuser. The rabbi replies, "I don't know." This answer, of course, infuriates the accuser, who spits out, "For twenty-five years you've crossed the green to pray. How can you really not know?! Don't be insolent with me!" The accuser drags the rabbi off to prison, and as the rabbi is about to go through the cell door, he says, "See, I didn't know."
I don't know what the day will bring. I can have plans. I can have dreams. I can have ideas. But any sense of assurance is an illusion. I don't know. What a frightening phrase!
Spiritual practices are not for helping ourselves live in greater control of our lives. What a strange sense of entitlement: that we should feel we can be in charge of the world, even our little corners of it. If someone is teaching you that, they're selling something based on illusion. Spiritual practices do help us live with and boat across the fearfulness, resentment, grief, and anger that arises from feeling a right to be in control and not being so.
The beginning of Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer is so illusion-shaking because it cuts directly to the heart of that strange sense of entitlement. The prayer becomes a helpful spiritual practice to gather our courage, to acknowledge our limitations, to release what truly is beyond our abilities, and to live for and with the goodness that we already are. 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.
When I stop focusing my energy on the things I cannot change and channel that energy on the things I really can, I am freed to practice greater goodness and generosity in the world, and, oddly, to make more of a difference than I would otherwise. I am released from my fears of not being in control into living courageously and lovingly through what I can do, including being compassionate in my grief for losing some of these illusions.
This week, I invite you to something you can really control: you can practice discerning what you cannot change, finding courage for changing the things you can, and developing the wisdom to know the difference. You already have the heart of goodness. Let your light shine, even though it shines in a way you didn't expect or plan.