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Living the Serenity Prayer
The Wisdom to Know the Difference
Many of us know and love the Serenity Prayer:
Courage to change the things we can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Many of us spend too much time anxious about things we cannot change: the economy, the weather, traffic on the freeway, or people who annoy us. As a result, we don’t have the energy to make the most of the opportunities we do have. Recognizing the difference between what we can and cannot change can help us live more peaceful and productive lives.
Acknowledge Your Conditioning
Some people have a harder time with the first line of the Serenity Prayer, accepting the things they cannot change, while others have a harder time mustering the courage to change what they can. Often these patterns can be traced to family or cultural conditioning. Reflect on the messages you received growing up. Were you expected to be passive and submit to what others wanted? Were you trained to be in control, so that letting go is more difficult for you today? Sometimes just acknowledging your family or social conditioning can help you to let go of old patterns that are no longer serving you.
Many spiritual traditions teach that knowing yourself is a lifelong pursuit, but one that can help you feel more at peace with yourself and other people. Spending time alone—walking in the woods, meditating, or journaling—can put you in touch with what's really going on inside you. When you acknowledge these feelings, you can make a conscious choice about what to accept and what to change, rather than letting yourself be ruled by unconscious feelings.
Pay Attention to Your Inner Voice
When you get a feeling that something isn't right, pay attention. That may be a sign of something you need to change. We human beings have a tremendous ability to deny our inner truths or talk ourselves out of making changes that might seem scary or difficult at first, but usually we know what is right deep down. Pay special attention to intuitions that persist over time or that come with a sense of peace and clarity. The more you pay attention to your Inner Voice, the more clearly it will guide you.
Learn from Your Mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes, but many of us waste too much energy beating ourselves up over them. While psychologists have not agreed on one standard definition of wisdom, they do agree that one of the qualities wise people share is the ability to learn from their mistakes. When things don't go the way you hoped, instead of focusing on what you did wrong or what someone else did to mess things up, think about what you might do differently next time.
Monitor your pessimistic thoughts and try to find evidence to refute them. Psychologists have found it is particularly helpful to censor categorical words like "never" from your thinking. Just because something didn't work out last time, that doesn't mean it won't work next time. Instead of simply repeating positive affirmations, point out to yourself the things that you can do to bring a more positive result in the future. Cultivating optimism has been shown to make it much more likely you'll be able to change the things you can, as well as accept the things you can't.
Practice Letting Go
Life is full of opportunities to let go and trust. Practice with the little things: a lost earring, a flat tire, or an uncooperative toddler. In such situations, take a deep breath and monitor your thoughts. If you are angry or frustrated, don't pretend you are not. Just observe your own emotion, and then see if you can release it with a deep breath. For many people, prayer helps. Turning a problem over to a Higher Power can bring tremendous relief.
Whether it's a religious congregation, a Twelve-Step group, or just a gang of really good friends, community can help us develop wisdom. We need people who will tell us when we're acting wimpy or pigheaded, as well as point out our strengths and encourage them. We also need people who will support us when we hit tough times and cheer for us when we succeed. If you don't have such support in your life, think about where you might be able to find it. If you do have people like that, count them among your blessings