"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 very beautiful but very 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"? I honestly wondered if such tiny words would be included in the dictionary. I own a 1934 Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, so I dutifully flipped the crinkling pages open to the word "can".
"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."
These examples were all asking "Are you able to?" That seemed to prove my point. I wondered if there was some sort of mixup at Webster's. 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 diffference—even after praying for wisdom.
My recovery had taught me not to close the door on new possibilities. I left room for 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". It sounded something like this:
• CAN you speak Swahili? "No, I have never known how to speak Swahili."
• CAN you name all of the state capitals? "No. I used to know how but I have forgotten."
• CAN you help me work the Twelve Steps? "Yes, I know how and would be glad to help you."
In these cases, I was asking "Do you know how?" The point of my 1934 Dictionary experiment was to discover whether the definitions might shed new light on the 1934 Serenity Prayer. So, I recited the same prayer through my mind, but this time I substituted the 1934 definition where 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 came to a sudden halt. I reread the opening line, substituting the definition again. I fell silent for a long moment. This did not sound like the same prayer I had prayed thousands of times. There was a difference. Maybe a 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) admit to cherry-picking dictionary definitions sometimes. 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 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.