By Joe Kensok
John F. Kennedy’s instruction to “not pray for easy lives, but to be stronger [people]” has always fascinated me. On the one hand, we have our outward experiences in the world, and on the other, our inner lives, how we process these outward experiences and move forward. By shifting my focus from allowing my experiences to affect my actions, to preparing my mind and spirit to face whatever circumstances I’m given has been instrumental in moving through life gracefully.
This approach to one’s circumstances is prominent in several different philosophies and religions (including Buddhism, Stoicism, and Christianity), which tells me that there’s a universal truth to be found in it. This way of thinking can be summed up in a prayer written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
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.
My experience of living and working on the south side of Milwaukee has been a challenging opportunity to reflect upon the importance these virtues. My neighborhood is plagued by lack of economic opportunity, which has resulted in systemic issues of violence, substance abuse, prostitution, and segregation. Life here is not easy for anyone, since there are so many factors that are completely outside of our control, and perhaps there’s a certain grace in taking the time to grow in serenity, courage, and wisdom.
I first learned about focusing on factors that are within my control from the words of John Wooden, a legendary college basketball coach. He treated the game as a microcosm of life, and was able to see that being a successful athlete was not entirely different from being a successful human being. He enunciated what he truly desired from his players by defining success as the “peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” Within that definition lies the serenity to accept that we cannot do more than our best, courage to become the best that we can be, and wisdom to understand that doing our best is just fine.
As part of my placement with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I’m beginning my first season coaching basketball after having played the game (poorly, but enthusiastically) for nine years. Coach Wooden’s approach has shaped mine deeply. While I’m still learning new things every day, I also have the opportunity to share the lessons I have learned, on and off the court, with the young women I coach. Above all, I’m trying to teach them to not pray for an easy life, but to be as strong as possible. Our community needs that from them.
We cannot change whether or not the players on the other team are faster, taller, and more naturally athletic than we are, but we can hustle during practice to become as fast and athletic as we can be (we won’t worry too much about our heights).
We cannot control the calls the referees make and do not make, but we can execute our game plan to the best of our ability within the context of the rules.
We cannot control whether or not we get injured, but we can control how we take care of ourselves.
We cannot control any unsportsmanlike words and actions on behalf of our opponents, but we can carry ourselves with dignity no matter what.
We cannot control what goes on in the world around us, but we can control how we react to it.
By Joe Kensok
Originally posted on the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s #JVReflects blog.
Joe is a Jesuit Volunteer (2016-2017) serving Notre Dame Middle School in Milwaukee, WI
and graduated from St. John’s College with a degree in Liberal Arts.