Serenity, Courage and Wisdom

Many people are familiar with the Serenity Prayer by the German Philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr: 

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

However, do we know the difference between want we can change and can’t? I spend many a day anxious about things I cannot change from the weather, to politics, to people who generally frustrate me. As a result, I find myself lack lustre with insufficient energy to make the most of the opportunities I do have.

So what are the vital distinctions? You can change what you want, but you cannot change what you need. You cannot change another person, but you can change how you treat them, how you react to them, your opinions and judgments of them, and your relationship with them. You cannot change the past, but you can reappraise, apologise, forgive, let go, take responsibility for yourself, learn, change the present and the future, and move forward.

From a Buddhist perspective understanding what you can and cannot change is the simple but often difficult path to inner peace. It is fruitless to pray for peace because it is already within you, you already have it, it cannot be given to you.

The rational evidence for determining what we can change and what we cannot is overwhelming, but our behavior often tries to defy this reason and logic. Consider what you can change… You can change what you do, what you communicate to others, what you know, how you think, what you dream, hope and aspire to be. But we worry more about what we have no control over such as our pasts, our history, the laws of physics, the weather, human nature (yours or others), personality traits (yours or others), another person’s beliefs or thoughts (unless they choose to change), someone who doesn’t want to change, who you are related to, human needs, sexual preference, your talent, and things you do not acknowledge.

Let’s take a look at what the research states about worrying in general:

• About 85% of the things we worry about never happen.

• If what we worry about does happen, 80% of us said we handled the outcome better than we thought we would.

• People who let go of worries instead of stressing over them are much healthier than those who don’t.

So how do we let go and accept the things what we cannot change? Consider these insights to increase your awareness, perspective and recognition of the difference:

1. Accept uncertainty & learn to thrive in it.

The beauty of life is in how unpredictable it is. It has the potential to bring some exciting opportunities your way. Do things that make you happy, things you care about, and work hard on achieving your dreams. That’s all you can do… The rest is up to the universe.

 2. Open up.

What would it mean to have someone to confide in, to listen to you and allow you the opportunity to unload? Confiding and exploring creates opportunity which can lead to perspective and acceptance of those things we cannot change and also develop an understanding of how to change the things that are in our power.

3. Practice mindfulness.

Even simple meditations, such as 10 minutes of focusing on breathing has been shown to reduce everyday stress by as much as 39%. Learning to be present in a moment will help you keep your mind focused on what you’re doing now rather than worrying about things you can’t change in the future or the past.

4. Intentional activities

By focusing on things we enjoy doing we can choose activities that fit our needs and our personalities e.g. If you don’t crave excitement, parachuting it is unlikely to fit with your needs. The content and timing should vary. Varying the routine is likely to minimise the effects of hedonic adaptation (see the 40% solution to happiness).

5. Physical Activity.

Reducing the levels of your stress hormones, stimulating the production of feel-good brain chemicals, and improving your self-image are all excellent ways of changing what you can and accepting what you can’t. 

Recognising the difference between what we can and cannot change can help us all live a more peaceful and productive life… After all worrying is like being on a rocking horse, it gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere. 

Read this common story to appreciate when it is in our best interest to change course and yield to an immovable object or accept some permanent condition.

The following is often presented as a conversation between the American ship USS Lincoln and a Canadian officer. 

Canadian: “Please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.”

Americans: “Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.”

Canadians: “Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.”

Americans: “This is the captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert your course.”

Canadians: “No. I say again, you divert your course.”

Americans: “This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north, I say again, that’s one five degrees north, or counter-measures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.”

Canadians: “This is a lighthouse. Your call.”

Instead of asking God for serenity, consider changing it to a positive affirmation.

I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And I have the wisdom to know the difference.

Information cited from discussions with my colleagues and friends in my workplace, and

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