COVID-19 & the Serenity Prayer

Most of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer.  Reinhold Niebuhr penned the prayer that went through several similar versions but is perhaps most well-known as:

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.

I want to relate this prayer to our current situation with COVID-19. 

First of all, because most of us do not have access to a DMC DeLorean Time Machine there is nothing we can do about where we currently are with this.  That is, while we can learn from our mistakes in order to be wiser in the future, it is not otherwise productive for us to focus on mistakes made and searching for whom to blame.  Instead, we should be asking God for the serenity to accept that we are where we are.

Secondly, we do have the ability to change the future, if we have the courage!  COVID-19 is creating extreme circumstances which call for extreme measures. Top medical professionals have explained that extreme measures (the right extreme meastures) can dramatically impact the speed at which this virus spreads.   The goal, as illustrated in this chart, is to “flatten the curve.”

What this illustrative graph demonstrates is that without protective measures, COVID-19 spreads very rapidly with the vast numbers getting virus at the same time.  With protective measures being taken, the spread of virus slows down and fewer people have the virus at the same time.  This is important because, as the dashed line illustrates, if vast numbers get it at the same time, our healthcare system will not be able to handle it.  That is, there won’t be enough ICU beds, ventilators, etc., to go around.  If we take protective measures and slow the spread of the virus, even if the same number of people end up getting it, our healthcare system will have the capacity to treat them.

Every year we face the flu season.  A lot of people die.  It is certainly true that we can and should do better with preventative measures but once people have the flu, some are going to die despite our best efforts.  That is tragic.  With COVID-19, the situation corresponds in some ways but is very different in other ways.  For example, like the flu, once it has spread, some patients are going to die even after we’ve put them in ICU and placed them on a ventilator, etc.  Unlike our encounter with the annual flu, however, a lot of patients could die due to a shortage of ICU beds and ventilator.  That would be tragic at a completely different level.

The right extreme measures are all about, “social distancing.”  We need to take drastic steps to reduce instances of physical proximity to one another.  That means mass numbers of cancelations and closures.  It means staying home when we’d rather go out or go away!  Concerts, sporting events, schools, theaters, restaurants, special events, travel, and even church services need to be sacrificed.  (As a pastor, I confess that cancelling church gatherings was especially hard to me!  )   This is where having, “the courage to change the things I can,” comes into play.  It takes courage to face the inconvenience and financial hardships that the recommended actions will cause.  Given the sacrifice and level of difficulty these actions take it seems awfully wise that we should pray to God for the courage to make these hard decisions and to follow through with them. Without God-given courage, we are likely to fail to have the resolve.

It is true we don’t need to live in fear. But we need to remember that taking extreme measures, if they are wise measures, doesn’t mean we are living in fear. I wear a helmet when I ride my bike. Not because I live in fear, but because it is the safe thing to do. Avoiding social contacts during a pandemic doesn’t mean we live in fear, we do it because it is the safe thing to do. And truthfully, for the majority of you, it’s more about the safety of a minority you come in contact with (those with compromised immune system) than about yourselves.

It is also true that we don’t need to panic and go crazy like we’ve seen with a run on certain commodities at the grocery store. We are facing an extreme situation which calls for extreme measures. Some extreme measures, like social distancing, are wise. Some extreme measures, like hoarding supplies to the hurt of others, are not wise. Let’s add a line to the Serenity Prayer. Besides praying that we would know the difference between the things we can’t change and the things we can, let’s also pray we would know the difference between wise extreme measures and unwise extreme measures.

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