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Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Consulting Psychology Life Lessons Psychology Spirituality

The Serenity Prayer and Beyond

 

The lines, now recognized as the Serenity Prayer, are rooted in a sermon that Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Reformed theologian, gave either in 1932 or 1933. They are the following:

  • Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped and the insight to know the one from the other.

Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step programs have adapted it in the following way:

  • 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.

Regardless of the wording, the basic meaning does not change and, I would maintain that these words have had a profound effect on the way people think about things. One of the difficulties I have found people to have is their belief that they are capable of changing situations that they simply cannot. Thus, employees are not likely to change their boss’s behavior just as spouses are not likely to change certain traits their partners may have. The distinction is that they can change the way they react to their bosses or their spouses much more easily than changing how these significant others behave toward them.

An important ingredient in cognitive-behavior therapy is implicitly stated in the Serenity Prayer: You can change the way you think about others but don’t expect others to change for you. This is not to say–you can’t ask your spouse to change a certain type of behavior that you might find bothersome or annoying–without ever arriving at the desired consequences. You may. But generally, I have found that in most situations it makes more sense for a married couple to be able to live with and accept each other’s ingrained differences. Frequently, couples enter marital counseling with each partner blaming the other without understanding how each one’s behavior impacts the marriage.

Another illustration of this could be a student, after studying long hours, performs poorly on an exam. That student may blame her/himself for not doing well. Let us look at this example more closely. If the student did the best he/she could, then perhaps she/he may come to the conclusion that he/she is not particularly skilled in the area that exam covers. But if this is the case, does she/he have to feel badly about himself? Given the above information, I would answer this question with a firm “no.” However, what if that same student did poorly because of intense test anxiety, but she/he would have achieved a much higher score if the experienced anxiety was under control. Because no one of us can perform equally well in all areas that we may partake in, in the first situation it may be preferable for the student to accept this fact and focus on another field. In the second case, however, in which the student is suffering from test anxiety, she/he can change this through techniques involving relaxation and/or meditation with the possible help of a therapist or expert in that subject.

Many people are upset not only by the current coronavirus, but also by the way our leaders are handling the state of the world. I don’t doubt that these people may have the best of all intentions but I consider it unhealthy if their anger is such that they are paralyzed, thereby, preventing them from moving forward. Certainly, if you want change be sure to vote inasmuch as that is an activity within your power. However, changing the state of society is a huge task well beyond the scope of any one individual. Rather than expending so much mental energy in thinking about the impossible, I would advise these people to choose something near and dear to their heart in which their involvement might affect some type of change, whether it be small or large. Here, once more, we see from the Serenity Prayer the importance and wisdom of delineating between what we can change and what we cannot.

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Life Lessons Psychology Spirituality Sports

One Wave Too Many

When I was a child growing up in New Jersey, my parents would take us to visit an old classmate of my father and his family in Beach Haven. We would rent a cottage in the summer, and it was there that I learned how to body surf. When I relocated to Southern California in 1978, I lived with a cousin briefly. I taught him how to body surf, and so we shared many memorable moments riding waves into shore. It felt good being the teacher, the one with the expertise as to knowing in advance which wave would give you a good ride and when to swim out to it and, at what point to start swimming toward shore just at the moment it was being to break.

Sometimes one can overestimate his/her knowledge and experience. It had been a windy day with signs of a storm very possibly approaching the coastline of Southern California. I’d made plans to meet a friend of mine that I had worked with in the past in Santa Monica on the beach after work. When I met him, there was virtually no one in the water: The waves were breaking madly against the shoreline and to me it was a challenge to swim into them and ride them back to shore. There were no lifeguards on duty because it was evident that the beaches were really off limits to the public that afternoon. The blackening sky matched the black flags that indicated danger and a warning to bathe at your own risk.

If I had been rational, I would have known better. But I was gripped by the fearlessness of youth, although I was already in my mid 30’s. My friend, who was a good swimmer like me, did not want to go in the water, and I chided him for meeting me at the beach and not wanting to take part in the fun. To myself, I said “poor Richard, here he goes being overly cautious once more.” And so I entered the ocean with all caution thrown to the wind. I was a lone body in the surf.

It started off as great fun as I rode some huge waves but suddenly———a wave hit me hard and I did a somersault and as I tried surfacing was hit by another wave that took me under. Now I was out of breath, having swallowed some water before being able to surface. But worse, after I’d been in a wave heading toward shore, an undertow pulled me back out. I found myself in water well above my head, a taboo to those of us that know the ocean. If you can stand in the water, you can usually, without much difficulty, get yourself back to shore, even in severe conditions. Fighting an undercurrent, and caught between two sets of breaking waves—one close, the other farther out from shore—I couldn’t get any closer to the shoreline.

I came to an immediate realization: If I let myself be dragged out beyond the farther breaking waves it would be extremely difficult to get back. What I immediately knew was that I could not let my body be dragged out beyond the waves that were breaking farthest from shore because it would be extremely difficult to get back. I don’t remember there being a rip tide but rather a very rough ocean carrying waves of gargantuan size. I swam desperately, thrashing with swim strokes, perhaps like that of a whale just harpooned. I looked above at the darkening sky, no blue and no sun in sight, and I wondered, for a very brief moment, whether this was going to be it for me!

I no longer tried to ride waves in to shore for fear if I went out too far I would not be able to come back. I swam as hard as I could to get to the waves that were breaking close to the shore. All of this occurred in just a few minutes, but felt like a lifetime of unending agony. I had no idea how to escape the ocean’s wild, untamed ferocity. I felt as if I was being devoured by Nature, then taken to a place I had never been and did not want to enter.

Exhausted, I continued to swim between the two sets of waves and, as I approached the set breaking closest to shore I felt sand under my feet. It was if my prayers had been answered. With both feet on the ground I galloped as a wave hit me and drew me closer to shore. I plunged onto the wave and glided safely on my belly to shore. I lay there for perhaps two minutes, dry heaving water and once more looking up at the colorless sky. A teen-age boy, who perhaps had seen me struggle, came up to me and asked me if I was all right. I told him “yes.” I’d drifted some 50 to 70 yards away from the point I entered the ocean. I discerned a distant figure approaching. As it came closer, I realized it was my friend.

As I thought about my dangerous escapade, I understood: “masculine” bravado? In actuality, it was youthful foolishness. With no life guards in sight, I’d performed on a trapeze without a safety net. It was adolescent but very much male what I had done. If I had been pulled out beyond the farther set of waves, I doubt I’d be here to tell the story. As they were out that day, a helicopter may have sighted me. But the ocean is a huge expanse. Given how tired I was once ashore, how long could have I lasted in the deeps? Would I have been spotted before it was too late?

Never again did I body surf at an unguarded beach.

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Life Lessons Psychology Religion Spirituality

Shavout: Reflections on My 70th Birthday and Second Bar Mitzvah

Honored Rabbi Cantor, a person I have enjoyed knowing these last few months and Cantor Sofer, family and friends and fellow congregants, let me first give special thanks to Ted Hirschfeld for the excellent teaching he provided to me on my Haphtarah today. My wife Lisa also deserves special thanks for encouraging and enduring the time I spent learning and practicing my Haphtarah. To those that asked: Yes I did have a Bar Mitzvah on May 25, 1958, on Sunday the first day of Shavuot. Remembering what my mother, may she rest in peace, said to me many times: “Bernard we are a strange people, we eulogize the dead and criticize the living.” As I remembered the sense of exhilaration I felt, going through the process of practicing my Bar Mitzvah some 57 years ago, especially, that very last week, I decided to repeat the process that I had experienced in my early adolescence. In so doing, I wanted you, my friends and family, to join me in this celebration.

Let me begin by going back in time. It is the week of my Bar Mitzvah, 1958, and suddenly out of nowhere, I who rarely ever got sick, had developed a rash that within a couple of days covered my entire face. You can imagine my mother, fraught with fear: Her first thought being that I had German Measles as it was thought contagious and was making the rounds in the neighborhood at that time. Asking if I was okay, I repeatedly told her I felt fine except for the fact that I had a need to itch my face where the rash had spread. My father, as always the optimist he was, told my mother not to worry as I would be fine. But the rash spread and worsened to my mother’s distress and, I continued to feel the need to itch. When my face became covered with red marks my mother decided to have me stay home on Friday and on to the doctor I marched. I did not mind missing school because by this time I was feeling pretty uncomfortable in my own skin. How this could be happening, I wondered, on my Bar Mitzvah week. Why was God doing this to me? What was He trying to say to me?

Ah, how we can sometimes miss the obvious. The doctor immediately diagnosed my problem as a bad case of poison ivy. I had played stick ball with a friend, Marc Goldblatt, who is among us today in the congregation and on our block was an undeveloped lot. I went to fetch a ball he hit into the lot and I had stuck my head into a clump of what had turned out to be poison ivy. I took liberal amounts of calamine lotion and by Sunday my condition had cleared up to the point where I looked like a normal acned adolescent.

On a broader and more universal level, I remember being in the 4th grade in 1955 when I was 10 years old and the teacher saying that the likelihood of Israel surviving was small inasmuch as she was surrounded by its enemies among which was Egypt’s Nasser and, thus would more than likely lose its statehood. Saddened, I talked to my parents about that and they somehow reassured me not to worry. Obviously, the world underestimated the people of Israel as indeed, they are still here, stronger than ever. Besides which, Nasser had to put up with the likes of Hollywood in 1956, when Charlton Heston, as Moses, crossed the Red Sea unharmed in Cecil Demille’s epic: The Ten Commandments.
1948 was a huge turning point in Jewish history when Israel gained its Statehood and became a nation after its battle for independence. It had been 2100 years since the Jewish people had won a battle. when the Maccabees stood up against the Greeks in 163 b.c.e. 2100 years and, here I thought 86 years was like an eternity, when the Red Sox finally won a World Series in 2004. 86 years may seem a long time but compared to 2100 years it is a mere speck of time.

And now what about this holiday called Shavuot. Shavuot is the Hebrew word for weeks and has been referred to as the Festival of Weeks. By custom, we as Jews count 50 days from the 2nd day of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot which would be today. 50 days represented when the grain was ready to be harvested by the farmers. Shavuout is sometimes referred to as Pentecoste from the Greek work meaning 50. Shavuout represents the time, when Moses leading the Jewish people out of Egypt crossing the Sea of Reeds and entering Mount Sinai in what is now the Sinai Peninsula, receives the Torah or 5 Books of Moses from Genesis to Deutoronomy from God at Mount Sinai.

Today I read a haphtarah. A haphtarah is a series of selections from the books “Prophets” each of which corresponds to the Torah reading of that day. And so, my haphtarah corresponds to the Torah reading of today describing Moses’ journey to Mount Sinai. My haphtarah dates back to the time the Jews were in exile, after being conquered by the Babylonians, and comes directly from Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot he had in which he sees heaven opening up above with four heavenly creatures, each having four faces: 1) Human; 2) Lion; 3) Ox and an 4) Eagle. Each has wings extended upward at once human with other characteristics that are not human where he sees faces of humans and animals combined with wings that appear to turn into the angels of God. When he sees what he believes to be the image of God on a throne above the creatures, he falls to the ground; he then hears a rumbling voice believing that God has made him a prophet with the goal of leading his people back to the Promised Land. Ezekiel has this vision in Babylon after he is taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar who seizes Jerusalem in 598 b.c.e. where Ezekiel was born of a priestly family. The vision occurs in the 5th year of the Babylonian Exile which would have been around 593 b.c.e.

Now in ancient times, when a people were conquered they had two ways of understanding or reacting to being conquered: 1) The people that conquered them must have had stronger gods so let’s accept or believe in their gods and abandon our gods or for Jews their one God or 2) We are being punished because we have sinned against our God so we must correct our sins of the past to once more gain favor in the eyes of our God.

Around this time, carbon dating in areas where Jews lived, were rife with figurines and objects showing that Jews shared the practices of idolatry (idol worship) with other peoples. As a result of his vision, Ezekiel told his fellow exiles that the captivity was but temporary punishment for their disloyalty to God. He rebuked them for their ways and told them that their fellow Jews in Judah (Israel of today) would suffer the same fate if they did not change their ways. And sure enough, Nebuchadnezzar and his armies in 587 b.c.e destroy the Temple of Judah in Israel. Ezekiel has another vision and then is asked to record the date and the event. When the sad news was confirmed, the Jews in Babylon realized that Ezekiel the priest was truly a prophet of G-d: Ezekiel assured his people that they would survive as long as they worshipped God and followed His laws ceasing any practices of idolatry. The result was truly phenomenal inasmuch as after the destruction of the Temple in 587 b.c.e., carbon dating has shown that the Jewish people gave up the practice of idolatry. The giving up of idols and truly accepting a monotheistic God, I believe, to be a watershed in the history of Judaism.

We know from history that in 539 b.c.e. Cyrus, the Good king of the Persians, enters Babylon and gives back to the original cities the sacred objects carried off to Babylon. In 538 b.c.e., the Edict of Cyrus is proclaimed allowing the Jewish exiles to return to the Promised Land. In 537 b.c.e., the foundation of the Second Temple is laid and between 520-515 b.c.e. the Second Temple is erected.

Moses, receiving the Torah or having written it is, of course, more symbolic than historic. There really is no specific date as to when the Torah was written inasmuch as the event itself transcends any one point in time. Modern religious scholars believe that the writing of the Torah started sometime after the reign of King David in 1000 b.c.e. and, it was edited during and after the exile of the Jews in Babylon. With good fortune, when the Jews went into exile in Babylon, they were able to take the scrolls of parchment that the Torah was written on. In the 5th century b.c.e., the Pentateuch or the Torah, that is the five books of Moses, becomes recognized and accepted by all Jews. Ezra, a scribe, was said to have read this accepted version to his people when they have returned to Jerusalem. Acceptance of the Torah is then the binding force that kept the Jews together till present day after other tribes and peoples disappeared from the face of the earth.

So what then is the significance of the Torah? It would take an Irish Catholic, Thomas Cahill, to address this question in his wonderful book: The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. This is a book I recommend to both Jew and Non-Jew to read as it is a fascinating study of the Jewish Bible or the Torah. So now, let me highlight a few of the main points Cahill makes about the Torah that is the 5 books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Most importantly, the Jewish Bible changed history by literally creating history. Prior to the wonderings of Abraham outside of Ur, where he was believed to come from, every religion and culture in ancient times saw the world in cyclical terms with no movement forward. Humans simply followed the cyclical pattern of nature with no event being unique but rather being enacted perpetually. These cycles were marked by: 1) The phases of the moon; 2) the cycle of a woman’s body and 3) the seasons. Humans were believed to have no control of their fate as it was predetermined by their gods. The beer of the Sumerians was good because of its associations with the eternal, with the archetypal goddess who took care of such things. Nothing is considered new. But if everything is a circle repeating itself, there is no such thing as a future. With no future in sight, if all is a circle, there is little purpose to life because the pattern will repeat itself and the future cannot be influenced if everything happens over and over. The Israelites became the first people to live—psychologically—in real time, and they also became the first people to value the New and to welcome Surprise.

As Cahill points out, the Bible is distinctly different from anything else written before or after ancient times, because it lists individuals’ names “including names of women” thereby saying that every one of these persons was uniquely significant. No such listing of commoners’ names exists in pre-biblical literature. Other writings such as the Greeks, for example, have gods and humans mixed with the fate of the characters often predetermined by Fate. The lack of free will in the writings of these ancient cultures is evident, for example, in the famous Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles written in the 5th century b.c.e. In this tragedy, Oedipus, from the outset, is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother.

Rather, as Cahill puts it, the Bible is history, not mythology. Each episode fits into a logical progression of events so that it is told against the background of everything that has come before it giving it a natural sense and unity.

The second transformative Jewish contribution was its understanding of God. The Hebrew God, unlike every god before, “cannot be manipulated,” as this God “is a real personality who has intervened in real history, changing its course and robbing it of predictability.” The Torah’s account is grounded in its monotheism, a concept at the heart of the religion of Israel and promoted in Christianity and Islam.

Third, the Jews gave the world the notion of human freedom on two levels: The first and more obvious is the Torah’s rejection of slavery in the human condition, a reason why black Americans took so much solace in the Hebrew Bible’s Exodus narrative. The other point I discussed above: The Bible’s complete rejection of the cyclical view of life. “We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free but are as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds” in their exodus out of Egypt.

Fourth, through the Ten Commandments, “for the first time human beings are offered a code without justification. Because this is God’s code no justification is required for who but God can speak: Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt not without such authority that no further words are needed.”

Fifth the Jews gave the world a day of rest. “No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest.” Even today you can hear many of us say: TGIF: Thank God It’s Friday. Those people, who work seven days a week, even if they are paid millions of dollars to do so, are in the biblical conception, slaves.

Sixth, the Bible’s “bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.” I would maintain that this principle, especially, resonated with the founding fathers of America as they were said to base many of their ideas of justice and freedom on the basis of their reading of the Bible. Certainly, at the start of the Revolutionary War, America was viewed as the underdog against British forces but we know how that war ended.

Let me conclude on a positive note: Shavuot is a time of gratitude as it is the time when Jews accepted the Ten Commandments from God and the Bible and, it also represents the time of harvest of the farmers in Israel. As a practicing psychologist, I know that gratitude is a very important ingredient of happiness. Those that lack gratitude in their lives are often weighed down by the everyday difficulties that life presents to all of us.

Studies have found that people who are grateful are likely to be happier, hopeful and energetic, and they possess positive emotions more frequently. Individuals also tend to be more spiritual or religious, forgiving, empathic and helpful, while being less depressed, envious or neurotic. And here I may end by saying: Let us all count our blessings.