A Lesson from my Mother

Elsa Milera Castillo (center)

I remember hearing my mom say the Serenity Prayer many times as a kid.

“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.  Those are the first four lines to the Serenity Prayer. It was first published in 1934 by Reinold Neibuhr, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary. It was adopted in 1941 by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 and four years later my mom was born in Camaguey, Cuba. When I think about some of the things I cannot change I come up with the obvious: weather, traffic, disease and people of course.  You can’t change people. No matter how hard you may try or want to.  In my mom’s case it was the Cuban revolution in 1959.  It would change the course of her life, irreparably.  It would bring both unimaginable amounts of pain and inconceivable amounts of joy into my mother’s life.  I do not think my mother, or any immigrant for that matter, can ever truly accept the loss of the place they first called home.  It’s funny because the hardest thing for me to accept are people who don’t listen or do the things I tell them to do.  I imagine of course that they would all be so much happier if they did. These are my first world problems. 

What can I change?  My attitude of course.  The make-up of Congress, amendments, my driving, my perceptions.  How do you know when you can change something?  You don’t.  When my mom boarded a plane for the first time at 15 years old in 1962 and said goodbye to her family and friends, there were no guarantees she would ever see them again. None.  She was literally flying blind and shortly would land in a foreign country.  She was brave.  No guarantees for what the future held, but she made a choice and it was changing the one thing she did have the power to change.  I think of how scared my mom must have been that day.  I also think about her courage that day and I think of other courageous young people like the students at those lunch counter sits ins in the 60’s or students who walked out of school to protest gun violence and climate change.  Nothing might ever change, but that’s not why she did it.  She did it because she did not want the revolution to take away her agency.  That is a loss tantamount to death and the best revenge really is to live.   She was not going to be a victim or stand there powerless as the revolution unfolded around her.  She chose to act and take the biggest risk of her very young life. In doing so, she not only changed the trajectory of her life, but of mine too.  She feared for her life and for her future and maybe in some corner of her 15-year-old mind, feared for mine. 

How did she find the courage to change the things she could?  I don’t know, which leads me to the last line of the Serenity Prayer: the wisdom to know the difference.  How do you know the difference? I don’t know if my mom would say that she did a wise thing that day getting on that plane, but that day she decided it was the wisest thing for her to do.  She would tell me that since that day she had struggled, made mistakes and had known failure many times, but she would remind me that despite all of the heartbreak, she had never given up.  I know she would tell me about all of the amazing friends she made in this country, her many adventures and all of beautiful things she had ever seen that had left her speechless.  I think if my mom were here today, she would say: “Live your life, Jose.  Make the most of it.  I did.”  She lived into the wisdom and knew the difference.  Maybe that is what wise people do.  



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