God, Improv, and The Art of Living
By MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Eerdmans, May 2018
The following article is a modified excerpt from God, Improv, and the Art of Living, which was released in May, 2018. Author MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a sought-after speaker, preacher, conference leader and writer around issues of leadership, faith formation, and congregational transformation. She has participated in several summer writing workshops at the Collegeville Institute.
My father was a recovering alcoholic, and when I was growing up, our whole family attended twelve-step meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous for Dad, Al-Anon for Mom, Alateen for me, and Alatot for my younger siblings. My memories of these meetings are vague: a Methodist church overrun by people, many of whom smoked on the outdoor walkways and patios. Coffee urns and warm hugs. Long, unhurried stories. Tears and ashes of raw emotion that sometimes scared me. Rituals with recited slogans and clasped hands. And 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.
I always assumed the prayer was original to AA, as I assumed many of its most beloved catchphrases were. How could it not be? It encapsulates so much of the personal and family dynamics of addiction. An alcoholic can’t choose the way his or her body metabolizes booze. A spouse can’t control an alcoholic’s behavior or convince the person to stop drinking. A child of an alcoholic can’t change the family system he or she inhabits. But there are things that each of us can change—namely, ourselves—and we need the wisdom to know what work is ours to do.
Once I went to seminary, I learned the Serenity Prayer began outside of twelve-step programs. There are many versions of the prayer and stories of how it came to be, but it’s been most reliably attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, a Protestant theologian of the early twentieth century.
The prayer has a life beyond AA. It could also be called the improviser’s prayer. When we accept the things we can’t change, we are embodying Yes.
When we live in a spirit of Yes, it doesn’t necessarily mean we like what’s happening. It doesn’t mean that we would have chosen a given circumstance for ourselves. I’ve done enough improv to have had a fellow improviser suggest something onstage that made me cringe, that gave me an internal “Ugh.” But there’s freedom in knowing that it’s not my job to talk the person out of it; in fact, to do so would violate the cardinal rule of improv. My job is to do my best to live out the reality that my partner has spoken into being.
Improv instructor and mental health professional Lisa Kays calls this the orange sky problem. She says, “If character one says, ‘The sky is orange,’ the sky is orange. We cannot refute or argue this. However, that doesn’t mean we have to like that the sky is orange. It can make our character sad, or confused, or scared. We can react to the sky being orange in any way, even with anger, but we can’t dismiss the idea or argue with the premise itself. This is what agreement means in improv.” […]
Nancy Roman isn’t a household name, but it should be. If you’ve ever been wowed by the image of a dying star with gases pluming out like buttery wings, or of the haunting Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, you have her in part to thank. Nancy Roman oversaw the Hubble Space Telescope project for NASA for some two decades, and worked in the eld of space exploration and research for even longer.
But NASA was never part of her plan. Instead, Roman began her career in academia, earning her Ph.D. in 1949, and prepared to settle into a life as a professor. But as a woman in a technical field in the 1950s, she couldn’t find a university that would grant her tenure. After trying for a long time, she changed course. “In 1959,” she says, “when NASA was formed, one of the men there asked whether I knew anyone who would like to set up a program in space astronomy. And I decided the idea of influencing space astronomy for fifty years was just more than I could resist, so I took the job.”
Nancy Roman didn’t just set up the program. She was instrumental in getting Hubble developed, funded, and implemented, to the point that she’s now known as the Mother of the Hubble. She accepted the thing she couldn’t change, and changed the thing she could. She stopped hitting her head against the closed door, looked around, and found another way to serve. She found her Yes.
There’s a strain of Christian theology that seeks to wrap up stories like Roman’s with a tidy providential bow. “It was all meant to be,” some might say. “Look what an impact she’s had! Everything worked out for the best.” Such theology strikes me as chintzy and cheap. Sexism is never “meant to be.” And I have no doubt Nancy Roman would have had an impact wherever she went. What really happened here is that Roman had an orange sky moment. I don’t know Roman’s spiritual background, but I do know she embodies the spirit of Niebuhr’s prayer.
She accepted that she wasn’t going to bust her way through the glass ceiling of a awed university tenure system. Others could, and did, but instead she changed what she could—her own career path—and said Yes to an unexpected opportunity.
The universe offers untold possibilities to us. Yet I realize how much effort I’ve expended pounding on doors that remain resolutely locked. Sometimes, the work of accepting what we can’t change involves letting go. It’s not an easy process. As Anne Lamott has lamented, “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.”
But if we can pull it off, living the Serenity Prayer can make life a little more graceful. So many of our Noes are rooted in denial. Denial robs us of time and energy we don’t have, and it can even deepen the messes we find ourselves in.
I’m a recreational runner, logging between fifteen and twenty-five miles a week depending on what kind of race I’m training for. Some time ago I started feeling something strange in my left leg, but I told myself it was the normal muscle soreness that comes from training hard. I continued to run on it until the pain became too loud to ignore. After a few doctors’ appointments and an MRI, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my tibia. In an instant, my upcoming racing plans evaporated, including a bucket-list marathon, and I was prescribed twelve weeks of complete rest. Even walking needed to be minimized in the beginning. “Every step will set you back,” the doctor warned, sympathetic but stern.
The cruel irony is that my first nagging aches were probably a shin splint, a relatively minor problem that can often be corrected with several days of rest, perhaps some new shoes, and a change in running form. Thanks to my refusal to accept what was happening, my shin splint bloomed into a full stress fracture, and I was out for three months. If I’d listened to my body—if I’d come to terms with the thing I couldn’t change and changed what I could—I might have avoided the bigger injury altogether. Now, when people ask me what caused my injury, I say, “A bad case of denial.”
This excerpt was reprinted with permission from Eerdmans.
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