“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
– Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr, 1934
These words have woven themselves into popular culture, thanks in large part to their inclusion in the liturgy of Alcoholics Anonymous. The prayer wasn’t written for AA, but it fits so perfectly that it could have been.
A person dealing with addiction lives on the boundary between that which is innate and that which is personal choice. No one chooses to have the impulse, but there are thousands of choices any of us can make that stack the deck to influence whether that impulse is likely to win or lose.
Those in recovery courageously change the things they can, because they have the wisdom to know they can’t very well change their DNA or upbringing or past mistakes. If they want to be happy, they have to put the past behind them and proactively make different decisions going forward.
Those of you from Houston might remember the commercials for Spring Shadows Glen and their tagline: “It’s not your fault, but it is your problem.” Pretty much hits the nail on the head.
It’s not your fault that you are an alcoholic…
It’s not your fault that you deal with mental illness…
It’s not your fault that decisions from 10, 20, 30 years ago have left you in a present-day predicament…
It’s not your fault that your boss is a jerk, that your company is poorly managed, or that your co-workers are inept…
It’s not your fault that you have a disease…
It’s not your fault that your partner is emotionally unavailable…
It’s not your fault that your career path hit a dead end…
But it is your problem. It’s real. And no matter whose fault it is, you’re the one stuck dealing with it now. You aren’t happy. You can beat yourself up about how you got here, but that’s very unlikely to change where you are.
But how much better could today and tomorrow be if you drew a line and recognized that you have zero control over everything that happened up until now?
I intentionally used “have” in the present tense, because I get it. You’re thinking, “I made the decisions, I chose the major, I picked up the bottle, I signed the offer letter…it’s ALL my fault.”
In one way, you’re right. You made (past tense) those decisions. Now you are (present tense) unhappy, and as such, you’re dealing with the consequences.
But you have ZERO control now over whatever you did in the past.
I’ve written before about my superpower: I have infinite free will to do whatever I want, reigned in only by my own fear of consequences. I can fly for short periods of time, but I choose not to because I’m terribly bad at landing safely. I can quit my job, move to North Dakota, wrestle a grizzly bear, or run naked through the White House lawn.
Having this superpower makes me feel powerful. There’s almost nothing I cannot do. There are things I will not do, but almost nothing that I can’t do.
As freeing as that is, it’s also frustrating. When I find myself in a bad situation, and I don’t immediately solve it, my superpower reminds me that I am in this bad situation largely because I’m choosing to remain in it.
If I’m not happy for more than a minute or two, it’s because I’m choosing to remain unhappy – often because I’m trying to exert control over things I can’t actually control.
I’ve discovered that the happiest people are those who’ve made peace with yesterday, but still embrace personal responsibility for today.
They exercise absolute free will, and as such, don’t let negative situations get them down for long. They don’t waste time beating their heads against a set of circumstances they can’t control. And if they are standing in and fighting through something, it’s because they want to, not because they have to.
If you’re seeking serenity, distinguishing between what you can and cannot control goes a long way toward that end. Focusing your efforts on that which is actually changeable takes you the rest of the way.
My goal in life, when I really boil it down, is to live in peace and happiness. I wouldn’t be against winning the lottery, either. But seeing how that’s a bit out of my control, I try to focus my words, thoughts, and actions on attaining peace and happiness, irrespective of what happens in my life. I try my hardest to insulate myself from the outcomes of things – especially the outcomes of other people’s decisions – and focus instead on maintaining my own positive, peaceful state of mind. While I’m focusing my mental energy on peace and positivity, I focus my actions toward aligning my behaviors and environment with my stated goal.
In other words, I keep my thoughts positive, and I try to live in the environment that a positive, happy person would create and choose. I try to align my behavior with my mentality.
I try to act like a person who has the wisdom to know the difference between that which I can control and that which I cannot.
Prayer doesn’t really resonate with me, and I don’t really understand “God,” but I do believe there’s power in saying what you want out loud. There’s power in writing down exactly what you want, and reminding yourself of it constantly. Especially when what you want involves your own psychology.
I want peace, happiness, and insulation from outcomes, so…
Universe, random deity who reads my blog, higher self:
I’m wise enough to know that I can’t time travel (…yet). But I’m shortsighted enough to get tangled up in my own past and my own story anyway.
Help me let myself off the hook for yesterday, so I don’t waste energy rehashing it.
Keep me focused on what’s possible today and tomorrow.
Stop me from trying to control circumstances and other people’s actions which I can’t (or shouldn’t) control.
Remind me that when I’m in a bad situation, I have free will to change it if I have the courage to accept the consequences, and if I’m choosing to remain, it’s likewise of my own free will.
Help me align my behavior and environment with my inner workings and values.
And let all of these realizations manifest in my noggin in real time and at the same time, such that my days are filled with the peace of a free, self-directed, happy human on a lifelong journey toward ever-increasing happiness.
And also, please give me the winning numbers to the next Powerball.