Recently, on a visit to Winnipeg, I had supper at a café with three old friends: Jake, Ian and Ritchie. The four of us have eaten a lot of pizza in this place over the decades. And here we were again. What I noted though — now that we had reached the average age of 60.5 — was a certain shift. Some of the change was related to the meal: only one glass of wine, thank you (Ritchie just had a Pepsi); a request for less salt on the pizza. But mostly it was the conversation that had altered.
In the past, these gatherings had been jokingly referred to as “meetings of the board.” We came from slightly different places: Ian is a microbiologist; Jake, like me, a writer; Ritchie owns a business. But we’d discussed what was common and what was current: girlfriends, marriages, divorces, children, work, lack of work, fishing, trips, things we wanted to do. A kind of testosterone-fed energy fuelled everything. Nothing was too outlandish to propose and no challenge was too ridiculous to be surmounted. We challenged, we competed, and yes, we even bragged.
Now, however, the testosterone was gone, like air out of a balloon. Ian told us the economy had forced him into working only part time but that he was enjoying the new-found free time out at his farm. Ritchie talked about the challenge of visiting a grandson who lived far away. Jake still had work on his mind, but was limited by recent hip surgery.
I sat back and realized I kind of liked what I was witnessing. Then I thought of something else.
Decades ago, I worked on a project that involved visiting soon-to-be released prisoners. Phil — I remember him well — gave me a piece of petit point. The thought of a guy sitting in his cell in Manitoba’s Stony Mountain Penitentiary doing embroidery still impresses me in a strange way. But what Phil had stitched for me was a rendition of the “serenity prayer.” The famous “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” As you may know, it was composed by Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian and political critic. Among other things, it has also been adopted as the prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous.
When I first received Phil’s gift, I admit that it didn’t make a proper impact. But I now realize that I was too young at the time. It is the prayer of middle age (or post-middle age). It takes us that long to reach a place where we can comprehend the profundities of such a Zen-like message. There are rhythms to our lives and changes that we can’t or don’t want to predict. Nobody, at 20, wants to be serene. But 40 years later? Yes, give us the prayer that asks for the wisdom to know the difference between what can and what can’t be done, what to make important and what to accept.
These friends of mine probably don’t pray often, if ever. Yet there it hovered over us, a reality that could be best encapsulated in this prayer that acknowledges an accommodation with life and existence, mortality, humanity and our humble place in the universe.
Testosterone for serenity, it seemed a good trade.
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