God grant me the serenity to hold on to what works and throw away the rest

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Humans and philosophy go together like a floundering man in a frothy nighttime sea and a lighthouse.

Tiny White Box newTrigger Warning: There’s some potentially bad news at the end of this. If you want to avoid that, you can safely enjoy (or not) all of this up until the last paragraph.

I don’t know much about philosophy, really. Oh, I’ve explored some histories of the subject and read standard works influenced by various philosophies—no one of my age and general background could have missed The Plague, The Wasteland, The Trial, The Gambler or any number of titles consisting of the definite article followed by an unsavory word. Still, I’ve never really studied philosophy the way I’ve pored over biographies and statistics of 1930s and 1940s baseball. (That may be the single most pathetic confession I’ve ever made.) I am no philosopher.

Humans and philosophy go together like a floundering man in a frothy nighttime sea and a lighthouse. The soon-to-drown man may be illuminated, may be inspired, may even be comforted by the lighthouse, but he is still doomed. Despite the consolation of philosophy, humans, like all living things, have a due date, one that snuffs out life’s candle no matter how much illumination remains in deep thoughts and insight. Cancer reminds us of death’s inevitability. Philosophy may help us see more clearly as we approach that universal fate; I don’t know, though, because I don’t know philosophy.

I’ve been accused of following a couple different philosophical paths, a charge that’s hard to refute from a shaky and flimsy knowledge base. For instance, I don’t know much about existentialism, which, along with Alice Cooper and leisure suits, was all the rage when I was young. In brief, as I recall, each of us is free and responsible for determining our own development and finding our own meaning through our will. This freedom can be terrifying, requiring us to, in effect, choose our own adventure while searching for meaning and authenticity. We must continue driving forward on a road paved with choices, while the only available map is written by our own existence. 

Likewise, I’ve been called a stoic. I don’t know much about stoicism, although that seems hot right now, especially among the young male intelligentsia I run with. Along the way, I’ve read some stuff by Epictetus and a bit more of Marcus Aurelius, the latter more because of my interest in the Emperor Hadrian and his British wall. In short, I am as untutored in stoicism as in existentialism. Still, I can summarize my understanding of stoicism by quoting the Serenity Prayer: 

“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.”

Reinhold Niebuhr, to whom the prayer is usually attributed, was no formal Stoic—I mean, I read his Moral Man and Immoral Society in a conservative seminary for goodness sake—still, that’s my best understanding. Embrace what you can control, accept what you can’t. Period.

Finally, I’ve been accused of pragmatism, a practical philosophy suggesting an idea’s truth or meaning is determined by its usefulness in real-life situations. I do know a bit about pragmatism, thanks to an obsessive love of Walker Percy which led me to Charles Pierce which led me to William James which led me to Harry Truman, of all people, who said something like, “We’ll try some things, and if they don’t work out, we’ll try something else.” In short, hold on to what works and throw away what doesn’t.

Again, my ignorance leads me to plead nolo contendere to these charges. Still, If I could take one thing from each to hold to my chest, they would be:

  1. It’s all absurd—life, death, tooth decay, existence—but it’s a glorious and beautiful absurdity.
  2. I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.
  3. Anything is worth a try—or even two or three.

Oh, and of course,

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Brief medical update: Just as with philosophy, my understanding of biology and medicine is spotty and limited. Still, I just read over the medical report from last Wednesday’s bronchoscopy, and it appears my cancer has in fact spread to my lymph nodes. This is not the end of the world, but it’s nowhere near as optimistic as last week’s update. I meet with my surgeon tomorrow (Tuesday) to hear a fuller explanation and to plot responses. I’ll keep you updated, but first leave you with a Keithian poem:

In the theater of existence,

Freedom’s spotlight illuminates the stage.

My choices make the script, extemporaneous, improvisational.

The chaos of being struggles with acceptance,

While truth’s symphony 

Provides unwavering resilience into the face of fate

Like a fart trumpeted out from beneath a wedding dress.


About this Author

Keith Howard

Keith Howard is former Executive Director of Hope for NH Recovery and author of Tiny White Box