Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Peculiar Form of Serenity

I don't have a problem experiencing serenity when things are going my way. When my children respond positively (or as positively as they can, given their disability or their emotional state at the moment) to my input I find it easy to be calm. When my spouse and I are in agreement over a particular family guideline or philosophy I am subject to little anxiety. When I am in control my world seems at peace.

But when my children do not respond favorably, or my spouse is not in agreement with me, or when I am sensing a loss of control, there is little peace to be found. I am discovering what those in the recovery community have known for a long time, that serenity (the kind emulated in the prayer of the same name) is what we discover in the midst of crisis, disagreement or loss of control. This is a peculiar form of serenity, because it is an internal quality, a spiritual practice which is not dependent upon the external happenings in one's life.

Tonight, for example. Claudia left earlier this afternoon on a whirlwind tour of El Paso and Houston, Texas, to talk with social workers about older child adoption and the process of matching waiting children. These kinds of transitions in our family are almost always problematic, for whatever the etiology might be, our children have exceptionally well developed stress detectors. When the collective family emotional barometer begins to shift or, God forbid, fall, the results can be catastrophic. Already at lunchtime there was an emotional outburst complete with filthy language and specific threats of bodily harm from an older sibling to a younger one. Today I was able to respond with a peculiar form of serenity and simply said, "That's really not appropriate or necessary. You don't need to act that way." It's not always that way. Like any other normal human adult, when I sense the threat of physical harm toward any of my children I typically find myself drenched in a cortisol haze that propels me to say more than I intend.

It is now 8:15 p.m., and two of our older boys (the ones who have best most troubled and troubling over the past two years) are AWOL. They informed siblings that they would be "walking around with friends," a practice I have always detested and one that I earlier swore I would never allow my children to engage in. But at the ages of nearly 17 and 15, I have come to discover that I am not able to force teenagers of this age to comply with my every request. We tried that years ago and only found ourselves embroiled in a social services system unable to provide much assistance to us. I am discovering a peculiar form of serenity in repeating to myself over and over again, "They're going to have to make their own choices and receive their own consequences if it comes to that."

Don't get me wrong. I will never be a parent who says, "Sure, go on out and do whatever you please, just lock the door when you come home." I will always want my kids to let me know in advance where they are going to be, who they will be with, what they will be doing, and when they will be home. I will always ask my kids when they return home after having been absent where they've been and what they've been doing. I will always remind myself that I am most likely not getting a full, nor a complete story of their whereabouts. I will continue to tell myself that the best and perhaps only thing I can provide at this time in their lives is a loving home, a caring father and an open door to return to after hours of "walking around with friends."

The whole situation still causes me great internal angst. And you can be sure that if things deteriorate -- if they're gone for days at a time, if they're missing school, if there's reason to believe they are engaging in illegal or immoral activities -- there will have to be some sort of intervention. But until that time I hope to practice this peculiar form of serenity, a sense of peaceful wellbeing that acknowledges what I can and cannot control.

In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr ...

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.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.

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