‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.’
– Reinhold Niebuhr
I remember seeing this for the first time pinned up in my dissertation supervisor’s office. Every meeting we had it was there hanging on the wall and I then, like now, it resonates so deeply for me. It just makes sense to me. To not worry about the things that you can’t change, to even have serenity over the events that are out of your control was a foreign concept to me. I worried a lot about others, their choices, what they were going to do if they had a problem, how they were feeling. My empathy was so much that I lived what they were going through and felt their pain.
So to see the idea that someone could feel serenity about something that they can’t necessarily control, like me controlling someone else… that seemed crazy, yet it made so much sense. My entire values system was shattered in an instant and I was trying to put the pieces back together. What was I gaining by worrying so much about others to the point I sometimes thought it was happening to me? Nothing, I was gaining nothing from carrying that pain myself. In fact it was very negative for me. Once I made the distinction that I couldn’t carry someone’s anxiety and pain everything realigned for me.
We all have choices when it comes to what we want to do. Whether we have control of the outcome, or have absolutely no influence whatsoever. The choice we have is not to change the outcome that is presented, but to choose how we interpret the events that happen before us. I found that if I looked at a situation for what it was and didn’t attach any emotion to the event then I view it with a lot more objectivity and I wouldn’t feel anxious or worked up. For example, if your friend asked you why your windows broken instead of, ‘those kids kicked that ball through my window, when I get hold of their parents there’s going to be words. I only just got them put in last week and there’s rain forecast all week. This is just typical, this always happens to me.’ How about, ‘the kids next door kicked their ball over and it went through my window.’
Whilst we can accept the inevitable events that are out of our control that doesn’t mean we should stand idly by if we have the power to change the circumstances that aren’t inevitable. I’m not talking about manipulating situations here. If someone needed someone to talk to, even if you’re just a sounding board, then you have the power to do that. If you see the opportunity to help others and yourself I believe that you should, which is where the next line of what Niebuhr said resonated with me. ‘Grant me the… courage to change the things I can’. If circumstances arise where you can give value and it is a win-win then I believe you should do it. For example, helping someone carry their shopping, you feel good. Listen to a prospective business pitch which has potential, you end up investing into a profitable business. Someone helps you with a project, you put in a good word with their manager. These actions come in all shapes and sizes and I believe perpetuating the practice of giving mutual value is never a bad thing. Some people find this easier than others and I think the hardest part of this is getting started. We live in a bystander society where we are incredibly good at watching things pass us by, good and bad. Either we think it’s too good to be true or it’s going to come back to bite us, so the easiest course of action is inaction. I think it’s time to break the cycle of inaction and to start the cycle of mutual appreciation.
Of course, knowing the difference between what you can and can’t control or change is essential to you not wasting your energy and time. If you think you can change the things you can’t then you will end up manipulating them to try and get an outcome that you want. Or you’ll feel deflated from butting your head against a wall that won’t budge. If you don’t change the things that you can then you are underestimating yourself and not showing the world what you are capable of.
If we all took the time to think about all the things we think we can change that really we can’t and let go of the expectation we have of ourselves the anxiety, fear and sadness would wash away in an instant. If we all thought about the things we think we can’t do that we can and took action, our dreams would be a lot bigger. This week I implore you to look at the things you think you can change that you can’t and the things you don’t think are possible, but they are.
Find your wisdom, find your courage, find your serenity.