“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.”
That’s what’s commonly known as the Serenity Prayer, by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. I don’t remember the first time I heard it, but it’s one of those truisms that’s stuck with me.
It’s been ricocheting around in my head recently. I brought it up at work. I mentioned it during a counseling session. And this morning when I was brushing my teeth, the Serenity Prayer blindsided me with a realization.
This time in my life is all about the first part of the prayer: surrender. I am letting go of so much I cannot change. I am also letting go of many of the things that usually make me happiest: companionship, travel, dinner parties, game nights. I can’t have those right now given the state of the pandemic, at least not in the form I’d prefer — Zoom only goes so far, as I don’t need to tell anyone.
Still, just because I cannot have some things doesn’t mean life stops moving forward. My consciousness doesn’t suddenly shut down. I’m not able to actually hibernate, although my pants are telling me I’m doing a good job at the calorie-retention part.
In a state of mind where I’m able to accept the things I cannot change, what is going to take the place of fighting for what I want and miss most?
My epiphany happened as I was getting ready to go on a winter bike ride, and I thought: what if I looked at this bike ride differently?
What if, instead of fighting my way to the top of each hill, I thought about biking in a way that allowed me to fully experience each moment? What if I let the ride happen to me, instead of me going biking?
I know. It’s heady mumbo-jumbo, but listen: I don’t need to tell you at this point that hunkering down gets a tad dull. Bear with me here, if you can.
My first frame of mind, of going for a bike ride, has me fully in control. Control is, apparently, a place I like to be in. Anyone who knows me will probably laugh at this statement of the obvious. My husband did, when I told him after attending remote leadership-training recently that I’d learned I may have control issues.
My husband is an even-tempered, level-headed person, to the point of often being maddeningly calm in contrast to my exuberance. But when I told him this aha I’d had, his eyes widened and face opened momentarily, like he was about to burst out laughing. Instead he averted his eyes and said, with audible strain, “I’m glad you’re learning things.”
And what time is better to unpack my control issues than during a pandemic — to accept the things I cannot change?
My second frame of mind about the bike ride positioned me as more of a guest — an adventurer embarking on and open to an experience. Yes, I’d do my part. I’d get on my bike, I’d move forward, I’d pay attention. But instead of letting my focus live in the mechanics of the ride — like the trail right in front of me, what route I was on or where I’d go from there — I’d keep my head up and look around.
I’d take in the forest, the snow, the fresh air.
Again, first frame of mind: I go here, I do this thing, this is what it’s like.
Second frame: I show up, I set out, I see what happens and how it feels. I don’t try to exert myself on the experience. I just let it happen to me.
I went biking. And I can’t say I stayed in the second frame of mind the entire time, or even nearly that. But the nice thing about the Valley is even on the most popular trails, it’s possible not to see another human for long stretches of time.
I found myself appreciating the low, lemon-colored winter light filtering through the trees, the steady sound of my tires crunching on snow, and a section of forest with dramatic strands of pale green lichen draped over tree branches. Bright white mountains loomed in the background.
I was cold at first, but as I biked I warmed up. When I eventually stopped to eat an energy bar, I felt the food hit immediately. That alone made me grateful. Food, when it hits right, is pretty amazing.
I still had creeping thoughts about how much time I might like to spend out there, or which turn to take for the route I intended on biking.
But there was also a more pervasive sense of letting go. That feeling, for me, is a little scary, because I’m not allowing myself to anticipate what might happen — or to think I can control what might happen.
Still, the first step for me in experiencing everything this time has to offer is to let go. Instead of thinking about have-nots, what-if’s and contingency planning, I try to accept where I am.
It’s scary. But it’s also freeing.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.