Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks all over it.
David Foster Wallace
I’m in the final edits of my book, At Home On the Kazakh Steppe, and revisiting a few of the Deleted Scenes that — whether to help with pacing, voice, or plot — needed to be removed. I found it so much easier to remove these scenes if I could simply move them to another folder, rather than delete them entirely. Interesting issue with Letting Go, given today’s post.
Over the next few months, I’d like to share some of these scenes with you. Call it hanging on. Here’s the first one. I once called it Corruption. Now I call it Finding Serenity.
The words I’d heard so often during our two-year Peace Corps application process, “You’ll need flexibility, patience, and a sense of humor,” rang often in my ears. During the two years of our service, it was my “sense of humor” that was tested most often. I’d learned the value of accepting the unacceptable, how that alone can bring flexibility and patience. Still, my Peace Corps years found me early on gritting my teeth and charging ahead, without much laughter. In Peace Corps, my Kazakh friends and colleagues reminded me how to laugh.
I went in seriously determined that those two years would be worth all I’d altruistically given up. The martyr role does not suit me well and I came home realizing nothing is so serious it can’t be found, eventually, funny. This was huge, but how I learned that, I wasn’t sure. So, I began to write. I wrote first to understand my experience. And I am now rewriting in the hope that I can share my experience.
Corruption — payoffs, bribery, kickbacks, nepotism — was rampant. I saw it everywhere: the policemen who stopped traffic arbitrarily to collect the small stash of paper tenge kept always in each glove compartment; the licensing bureaucrats who charged for a driver’s license, either $200 US or a sheep, depending on whether they were in the north of the country ($200) or the south (a sheep). New hires were expected to turn their first month’s salary over to whomever hired them. Grades could be raised a grade for a mere 5000 tenge; even diplomas were bought.
I reminded myself that Kazakhstan was a very young country, and America’s history, never mind its present, is riddled with corruption: something we don’t talk much about. I didn’t forget the problems America faces — pockets of corruption; regions where we can’t drink the water; crime, ignorance, and poverty.
But in the America I idealized, corruption is exposed when found and water tables are shut off if found to be polluted. (Why, I’d even shown Erin Brockovich for one of our weekly movies.) Our heroes (at least on TV and in the comics) fight crime and ignorance and poverty, and live to tell about it.
Americas schools are in trouble, death by guns is the highest by far of any place in the world, and there is an ever-growing gap between rich and poor. But while Americans disagree on the relative importance of these issues and how to address them, we still talk about them; we protest, demonstrate, argue, debate, write letters, or just complain. And we do so protected by the rule of law.
In the Kazakhstan of 2004-2006 there were no protests, no demonstrations, no letters, and no complaints. Law wasn’t the final arbiter; money was. I wanted my colleagues to be angry, to rail against the system just a little. But they couldn’t. It was their culture. It was in their “hardwiring.” How very different from mine.
The various branches of Islam are anchored in the idea of submission. But the branch of Christianity that I grew up with, the one written about so eloquently by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, preaches free will and personal efficacy. Change, we learn, is within reach.
This is fine if one is building a business or a country. But, to paraphrase the Dutch sociologist, Geert Hofstede, this particular set of beliefs was the very “hardwiring” (culture) that my latest “software” (education) had been working to override since the early 1990s.
You see, that hardwired cowboy-individualism philosophy had once turned my orderly, stable world inside out. When I was confronted with the impossibility of changing the one thing above all others I would have changed if only I could, the life of one of my sons, my cowboy-just-do-it-individualism abandoned me fast.
My teenage son had been diagnosed with a chronic illness and there was nothing I could do to fix him except to turn him over to experts. I can think of no pain as sharp as that of watching your child fall into a deep chasm and knowing you can’t pull him out. Except being told that he stands a better chance of getting out if you walk away.
Fortunately, I found the right therapist and the right support group. I also discovered the Serenity Prayer and used it like a mantra.
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.
I pasted it by my phone, on my mirrors, and inside my wallet so I would be reminded at almost every turn that I not only didn’t control the uncontrollable, I actually wasn’t supposed to.
I learned that no matter how well meaning I might be, how responsible I might feel, how caring I was, other people were simply not mine to change. I had grown up believing anything, anyone, could be changed if only I used the right word, retained the right expert, worked hard enough, or got enough people organized. With this fundamental belief lying broken before me, suddenly everything I had believed in was open to question. Everything. Believing I was destined to watch my son die was tremendous motivation to work on accepting the unacceptable in those years. I did it well.
Miracles began to happen when I stopped trying to control, when I stepped out of my own way, when I truly let go.
My life long stutter is a case in point.
That demon I had run from for so long began to slowly dissolve once I truly accepted the fact that my stuttering was a part of who I was. When I hid it, I hid myself. As I stopped trying to control it, I found myself walking toward a stuttering “event,” welcoming it, if not actually embracing it in the “embrace your demons” mindset of the new age gurus of the time. But I came to know it, to even play with it.
I loved the trade-off I found. Once I stopped controlling what was not mine to control, the energy I saved could be diverted toward changing what I could. In some cases, I could refocus on what was long overdue for attention.
This willingness to let go of what was not mine to control had been the source of my serenity in the thirteen years before I found myself in Peace Corps. I had preached it in countless talks around the world to people who stuttered. I had offered it to my clients as needed. There hadn’t been a day in thirteen years that I wasn’t cognizant of how important my serenity was to me. I thought it was a permanent part of me.
But by my fourth month in Kazakhstan, it was gone. In the midst of the newness all around me, the hard wiring that culture embeds in us at an early age — cowboy-individualism in my American case, personal efficacy, empowerment — took over.
I was angry at the corruption all around me and I wanted my colleagues to be angry too. I wanted them to organize, to protest, or at least to complain. I wanted to see them change the way their world worked. But they didn’t. Their world worked now better than it had for generations. They did not want to rock any boats.
In classic understatement, the “wisdom to know the difference” part of the Serenity Prayer eluded me. In those early months, sick from a lingering head cold and laryngitis that had plagued me for weeks and constantly tired, I was miserable.
I missed my country in a way I’d never experienced. I missed the beauty, the comfort, the safety that I had taken for granted and now idealized. I missed green vegetables and eating an apple without having to peel it.
So, I used this time as an opportunity to practice accepting the things-I-could-not-change and letting go of wanting my colleagues to change-the-things-(I think)-they-can. The wisdom to know the difference felt elusive for an awfully long time.
I continue to believe people — each of us, in our own way — make a difference. When we toss a pebble into a river, we don’t know how that one ripple, along with all the others, will change that river over time. So it was with me in Kazakhstan, I came to see. I could only toss in my pebbles. And let them go.
I’m pleased to say that I did, eventually, reconnect with my missing serenity. I’ll leave that story for the book. But for now, I’m interested in what you have to say. Are there particular things — issues, behaviors, reactions — that are harder for you to let go of than others? How important is serenity in your life? How do you find it when it goes missing?