As I have made painfully clear, I am not a religious man. But from the bottom of my godless heart, I thank all of you who recently emailed me in an attempt to save my soul. There was absolutely nothing condescending or passive-aggressive about your gestures, I swear to God. You all sound like fun people, and I’m sure the Lord will have a great time with you in heaven.
But this doesn’t mean there isn’t the occasional useful nugget of wisdom to be gleaned from religious thinkers.
I was raised Catholic, and at age eight you receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. As I remember it, the priest rubs some oil on your forehead and slaps you lightly on the cheek, at which point the Holy Spirit enters your body, hopefully through an acceptable portal.
You also get to pick your “confirmation name,” and it has to be the name of a canonized saint. I picked “Francis” after Saint Francis of Assisi, because he was known as an animal lover. For all of my gruff exterior, I am an absolute sissy-bird around animals. If you distrust everything else I’ve ever said, at least believe me about this—you do NOT want to see me around animals. I am nauseatingly affectionate with them. My last pet—a female pug—died about a year and a half ago and I’ve been pet-free ever since. Your sympathy, condolences, and PayPal contributions are appreciated.
Saint Francis is often incorrectly credited with being the author of the “Serenity Prayer,” an invocation that has been part of an oral tradition going back at least a century but was most famously crystallized by those deist killjoys at Alcoholics Anonymous:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
One doesn’t need the “God” part to appreciate the practicality of this prayer.
I’ve wasted decades of my life trying to change things I’d never be able to change—for example, the fact that most people are as dumb as toadstools and can’t comprehend basic concepts no matter how clinically and calmly you lay it out for them. After an arduous process of trial and error, I realized that no matter how hard I try, attempting to reason with fundamentally dumb people is roughly as difficult as trying to bench-press a mountain. It’s not as if I didn’t try—it’s that I eventually realized that the only outcome was an aching back and sore muscles.
I’ve also frittered away innumerable hours getting vexed over liars, hypocrites, backstabbers, and the serially inconsiderate, only to arrive at the same conclusion—you can’t change them. When you step in shit, the end result every time is that you get shit smeared all over your shoes. The shit doesn’t feel any worse about it—that’s why it’s shit. It fulfills its role admirably.
So, God or not, I’ve learned to accept that basic fact. I can’t change others, and they’ll only drag me down.
Lest ye be confused, this is not the same thing as clamping down, biting my lip, clenching my fist, and pretending that annoying things don’t bother me. A Seinfeld episode called “The Serenity Now” has Frank Costanza and Cosmo Kramer chanting “Serenity Now!” whenever faced with a stressful situation, and they eventually both go insane by suppressing their anger. Bottling one’s emotions only leads to an explosion once you pop your cork.
But whereas I used to thrive on conflict, I’ve learned to avoid irksome situations and irredeemably annoying people. I slalom around them with the finesse of an Olympic Gold Medalist downhill skier. If I feel my blood pressure rising, I’ll lift some weights or go for a walk or climb a mountain or seek some sort of carnal release.
Regarding the “courage to change the things I can” clause, it again took decades to realize that if I’m worried about money, it’s best not to, say, waste $65 on an eighth of Blue Dream, $10 on a restaurant omelet that would cost me less than a buck if I fried it up at home, or $3 on an artisanal cup of coffee that would cost about a quarter if only I’d bought a bag of java at the supermarket.
It’s all mind-numbingly simple, but it took me forever to learn: Forget what you can’t change, change what you can, and for fuck’s sake, be able to distinguish between the two.
I hope you learned something from this, too. Now, if you please, I’m going to leave because you’re starting to bother me. Serenity Now!