Almost three decades ago my therapist said something like this to me. “You‘ve learned how to cope really well. My hope for you is that you will learn that you can choose.”
She was reflecting with me on how my childhood with an abusive father had taught me to use strategies just to get by.
I was reminded of her words when I saw signs at #MeToo protests and more recently at Black Lives Matter marches. A number of them bore Angela Davis’ words:
“I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
You may recognize that she was riffing on the widely loved Serenity Prayer. In case you’re not familiar with that prayer, I’ll repeat it here:
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.
Fred Shapiro made the front page of the New York Times by arguing that, contrary to what many people assume, the renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr did not pen this prayer. Later, however, he uncovered convincing evidence that in fact Niebuhr was its original author.
Questions about the prayer’s authorship did not dissuade AA and other 12-step groups from continuing to use it. I have prayed it before rising every morning for nearly twenty years. And now I hear Angela Davis’ variation as a crucial amplification of that prayer’s wisdom.
Naming what is unacceptable—and taking steps to change it—is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. It’s at the core of compassion. And compassion takes courage.
John Philip Newell reminds us that there is an etymological link between the words “compassion” and “compass.” You may remember using a compass in geometry (in contrast to the navigational tool you use for a hike) to draw arcs and circles. He writes:
A compass … is used to determine the relationship between two points. The related word compassion is about honoring the relationships between two people or between one group and another, and remembering those who suffer. It is about making the connection between the heart of my being and the heart of yours. (The Rebirthing of God, p. 17)
Think about the component parts of the word compassion: com- (with) and -passion (suffer). To suffer with. The Apostle Paul says that we share in the risen life of Jesus “if we suffer with him.” (Romans 8:17) If we join him in solidarity with the suffering of the world.
Christlike compassion is not pity, a mere recognition of someone else’s bad fortune. It is a heart-to-heart connection. A recognition that my neighbor’s hunger, deprivation, or oppression are my own as well. That my freedom and happiness cannot be separated from theirs.
Racism, sexism, and poverty betray God’s dream for humanity. They are unacceptable. And we can begin to change this world—to move it toward freedom, equality, and dignity for all God’s children—when we recognize intellectually and experience viscerally that our own life is marred and diminished by these injustices.
For me, that means honest, vulnerable conversations with people who are not like me and hearing things about this world—and about the role I play in their lives—that only they can tell me.
It also means reading authors that unsettle me and stretch me. To name just three: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and Kaitlin Curtice’s Native.
As it turns out, we can’t really change the deeply unacceptable things about this world without also changing ourselves. And I have to admit that change like this is not just hard, it feels downright harrowing at times. It takes courage.
And this is where I get that courage. I don’t change so that God will love me. I choose such change because I realize that God already loves me. Just like God loves everybody else.
It’s like St. Peter walking on water. We have to step out of the boat. I have dear friends of different color and different religions who stepped out of their boat, and I stepped out of mine. We have been long time friends, and race and religion doesn’t matter at all. We appreciate and share each other’s cultural traditions.