"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."
While living the words from the Serenity Prayer is never easy, they have been the most important guide for me in navigating through a cold, cruel world that has great difficulty comprehending and accepting strident voices like mine, calling for change.
Yet, I've found that taking the words at face value can be problematic. I find it practical to work my way from the bottom of the prayer, up to the top. I think this is true for anyone wrestling with the confusion and re-victimizing collusion that leaves us feeling crazy when dealing with systems resistant to change.
WISDOM TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE--The most difficult thing, for most of us, has been sorting out what we can change from what we cannot. Generally, both survivors of any sort of institutional abuse start out with a lot of irrational beliefs, based on erroneous information, about what we can and cannot change.
Some of us have erred on the side of believing, as I did, that people only need to HEAR the truth. We believe that justice will be a given, if we can just find the right actions and words. If you are still clinging to that belief, I hope you will save yourself a lot of energy by abandoning that idea.
Study the problem of collusion, rather than focusing on abuse itself. Read some history about the attempts to expose sexual abuse by professionals. Study collusion with other issues of oppression, noting how long it has taken for even small changes. This will help to put things into perspective. Such a study will, also, lead to a more realistic set of expectations, based on where we are in 2004. It will take into account how far we've come in the past twenty-five years, as well as help us to see that what we want to see will probably take generations.
Others have sunk into the depths of despair, saying that nothing can ever be changed, applying this to every player and institution involved, including themselves! With energy totally depleted, they spiral down into deeper and deeper depression. These feelings are understandable, yet counter-productive for recovery.
Neither of these "ditches" are good places to be. Neither have to be permanent places to park.
COURAGE TO CHANGE--As I see it, this is the missing element in the institutions that have frustrated us all! Courage to stand up against colleagues who abuse and collude is in extremely short supply. The stronger the collusion, the more courage it takes.
Courage and energy go hand in hand for everyone. You really can't have one without the other. In order to cope with life, both survivors and advocates sometimes need to rest and wait for these to come along. Most of the time, though, the first step to finding energy is simply acting as if it is already there!
Even if we have given up on institutions, though, there is still so much that we can individually do to make a difference in our world and in ourselves. We can choose to see ourselves as healthy and full of life, rather than chronically sick and injured, despite the permanent changes that abuse and collusion have brought to our lives. We can look beyond our own lifetimes, working for the good of future generations in whatever we choose to do.
Taken at face value, the Serenity Prayer would lead us to believe that we are all supposed to get involved in every good cause we see, to bring about every change that we'd like to see in this entire world. In reality, we all have to make choices. As survivors and advocates, we need to be kind to ourselves and to one another on this point.
I am only one person. I cannot do everything that I'd love to do. I often wish I had a dozen lives, so that I could! Life is too short. I have to take care of myself and my family, above all else. Then, I have to choose what causes I will join, as well as how much time, money, and energy to invest in each cause.
Fighting the problems of abuse and collusion with professional sexual abuse is just one worthy cause. It's one that is neglected greatly. We all know that. It is a cause in which I have chosen to invest much of my life and energy for almost two decades.
Yet it is not one that I believe every survivor has to choose. There are many paths and many good choices. To help sort these out, see http://www.advocateweb.org/hope/itsneverok/options.asp
Choosing when to walk away from one's personal case, when to stop beating one's head against brick walls, is difficult. Yet, there comes a time in every case when this is has to be done, even though the outcome has been far from acceptable. That time may be very early in the process. Or it may be years later.
Holding a perpetrator responsible is a very big burden for one person. It is the job of systems that, so often, do not do their job. Yet, to continue with the fight, really is a choice. It is okay to make that choice. It is also okay to walk away. Survivors are not to blame if their perpetrator abuses others. The perpetrator and the institution or profession are, provided they have been told of abuse, even if they act irresponsibly.
Whether one chooses to fight, to speak, to be involved in the larger movement, there are boundaries to be set. How much energy, how much money, how much thought are you willing to invest? It takes courage to say "No!" to others who would like to pressure you into doing things that keep you from taking care of yourself and your family. In fact, just as much courage as it takes to get involved.
THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT--Too many of my patients, as well as my readers, seem to have equated "accepting something" with "being happy with the circumstances that have resulted." Happiness is a Western "requirement" that got started in the second half of the twentieth century. It's as if we are expected to be happy. If we are not, then there is something "wrong" with us.
Yet the world, throughout most of history, has not embraced the goal of happiness. Instead, the great philosophers talked a lot more about peace and tranquillity. These inward qualities have more to do with how we feel about ourselves and the world that we are able to create within us. They require an internal locus of control, the belief that our well-being doesn't have to depend on what others do or say or think.
Acceptance, then, means that we stop trying to undo what was unacceptable. We cannot undo it! Neither can we ever recover all of the losses. We can only learn from the past. The best revenge is finding ways to make the present and future as hopeful as possible. When we recognize this, we are able to move back through the prayer again, to find more courage and wisdom, allowing us to live lives that are meaningful. No matter what we choose. No matter what others do or say.
When this first step is tackled after the other two, it really is quite simple. It's the courage and the wisdom that are so complicated.
Dee Ann Miller is the
author of Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (2017) How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993)
The Truth about Malarkey (2000)
Dee Ann Miller is the author of Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (2017) How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993) and The Truth about Malarkey (2000)