“You chose to live in suburbia. You have to follow the rules, do what others demand. If you want to make another choice, someplace you feel is safer and more supportive, we can talk about it.”
— Sister, July 6, 2018.
Grant me the courage to change what I can, the serenity to accept what I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Where are the limits to choice? Do humans really have infinite choices, or are they limited by context and nurture? Why do my sister’s words, spoken as we tore up the front of the house to satisfy the neighbourhood association, feel like abuse, triggering old style fits of pounding my own head and ranting that there always has to be an ultimate choice?
I’m doing the amazing book “Sex Money Murder: A Story of Crack, Blood, and Betrayal” by Jonathan Green. It tells the creation story of a gang of incredibly violent drug dealers that came out of the Soundview housing project in the Bronx and of the police who worked to stop them.
The NYC tabloid headlines will quickly tell you how “evil” the group was, but Green wants to tell much more than that, wants to give some insight on how they got that way. From the racist views of Robert Moses who used planned parkland and highways to enforce segregation, to the venal pull of the Mafia who made money through pushing drugs, a context was created which demanded young boys learn how to be tough, encouraging them to value status over love.
With the eye for detail Green brings to the book, the stories of these hard ass killers will just break your heart.
Each individual must be held responsible and changing our choices, usually rooted in changing our story, is the only path we have to change, no doubt.
What, though, are the limits to serenity? How many insults do we have to swallow, how much support & reflection do we need, how much pain & rage do we have to suppress?
I strive to make the best choices that I can, but every day, every moment, I am limited by the context I live in, from the history of parents who not only couldn’t teach because they had no theory of mind but also saw whatever they didn’t understand as stupid, to siblings who can’t grasp the mammoth effort which maintaining serenity costs, instead demanding compliance or change.
Willpower is awesome, but it not only is a finite resource for any human, it’s also only part of the answer. We not only need the courage to change, we need the serenity to accept what we cannot change, even the things we cannot change that trap us, hurt us, frustrate us and tear us into tiny raw shreds of human pain.
The demand that we hide those feelings, complying with norms, though denial and compartmentalization, or get out, being left to our own limited endurance, may be the way society maintains a status quo, but it is also abusive, designed to pound the different into the compliant, comfortable and unchallenging.
My Coke Zero can mocks me, demanding that I share a Coke with my “Soulmate.” It is what we cannot share, even with those who we grew up with, the ones who look to us for care even as they struggle with a web of tension, the challenges laced into the demanding expectations of others, which eventually wear us down and break us.
People are who they are, doing the best that they can do. They can only understand what they can understand, facing limits of context, energy and self-knowledge, so they can only heal and grow in their own time and their own way, if at all. Even as it costs, hold open the space for transcendence, offering opportunities for them to learn and make new choices. You have to have the serenity to accept that you can’t demand change, that you have to meet others where they are, no matter what you need or how ragged you are.
Ouch. Just fucking ouch. I howl in pain, dreaming of a way out.
Spending a life focused on understanding, expressing and helping in the world, a life where I put ego drives and desires on hold to be present for myself and others has left me apart from earthly delights. Æsthetic denial is a powerful strategy, and I was born with the capacity for it, but that doesn’t mean the persistent and profound loneliness hasn’t come at a high cost. My own isolated process is very slow, both in understanding and in healing from the million daily bumps and cuts of a modern day life.
Doing the work, struggling make the most out of my choices has been hard. I know there is no simple answer, no easy perfection. I understand that human life will always include fighting and pain, so we have to take delight in the divine surprises, remembering to try the pâté.
When people, especially those who should know better, those who have seen my struggles, tell me just to make be courageous and make better choices, my serenity is sorely tested. This is especially true when they know I still live in the house my parents selected, limited by the way they, as executor, didn’t follow through in canonizing my mother’s wishes.
Sore, sore, oh, so sore.
Yes, better choices are the key to claiming a better life.
But serenity? That’s a price which wears you right damn down.