A View From the Watchroom

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Barry K. Wyrick, MS, MBA

Chief Operating Officer

Courage (2/12/14)

I want to apologize for the long delay between my posts.  I could make excuses (holidays, busy at work, etc.), but the fact is I got stuck as I was writing this post, and I could not find a way to say what I wanted to say at the end of the article.  This morning, I was discussing a completely different issue with one of my fellow staff members, and that discussion unblocked me.  So again, sorry for the delay—I hope that what occurred to me this morning will be helpful to you.

As I said in my last post, I am going to be discussing each part of the Serenity Prayer in a series of three posts.  As a reminder from last post, the famous prayer of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is, “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.”  For this post, I am going to discuss the middle part of the prayer—the courage to change the things I can.

I find it interesting that Niebuhr chose the word courage to describe the personal characteristic needed for change.  He did not choose what we would normally think would be applied to change—things like insight, energy, determination, or willpower.  Many people believe that if we can just understand what causes a problem (insight), then we can change or correct that problem.  My experience has been that gaining insight only increases our appreciation of our problems—it does not produce change.  So I am able to understand that my reaction to someone shaming or guilting me is caused by my mother’s use of those techniques when I was a child.  I get it, I know it intimately.  However, this knowledge in no way is capable of producing a change in my reactions.  Others believe that the reason that we don’t change is that we don’t have the personal physical or emotional energy.  Most of us barely have enough energy to get through the demands of each day.  When I watch children at play, I am jealous.  It has been a long time since I had that amount of energy.  However, what I do know is that somehow we find the energy that we need to do the things that we decide we must do (even if it is just taking out the garbage).  Some believe that lack of determination or willpower is the reason for not making change.  Determination and willpower certainly are essential elements to change, as all of us have found out that changing anything about ourselves or in our lives is never an easy process.  There will be many setbacks and discouragements, and it will be our determination that will be necessary to overcome these obstacles.  However, determination and willpower alone are not sufficient, because without courage (that I will describe next) our determination and willpower will fade.

Three of the most difficult words for many of us to say are, “I was wrong.”  Running a close second to this phrase is the statement, “I need to change.”  Over the last thirty years, I have worked in a wide variety of counseling settings—outpatient substance abuse, agency mental health counselor, agency family counselor, and private practice.  As I think back about the many individuals with whom I have counseled, the vast majority of them come into treatment because of some upset in their lives.  However, most describe that the reason for that upset is some other person, and their initial stated goal of treatment is to figure out how to make that other person change.  I cannot count the number of times I have heard people say that I would be happier if this person would only ……. (filled in by how they want the other person to change).

It takes real courage to admit to ourselves and accept the responsibility of saying that I need to change (and, of course, in order for change to really happen, to say, “I want to change.”).  As I observe our current culture, it teaches us that our satisfaction in our lives lies somewhere outside of us.  I am reminded of the old Huey Lewis and the News song, “I Want a New Drug.”  The lyrics start like this:

“I want a new drug

One that won’t make me sick

One that won’t make me crash my car

Or make me feel three feet thick.

I want a new drug

One that won’t hurt my head

One that won’t make my mouth too dry

Or make my eyes too red.”

How many of us look to some new drug or some new pill or some new thrill to make us feel better?  How many of us fantasize that I would be happy if only …..?  It takes real courage to say to ourselves that the secret of my satisfaction is me.  If I am feeling bad, I need to change something in my life.  If I am unhappy, I need to change something in my life.  There is enormous responsibility in realizing that really the only thing that we can change in our lives is ourselves.

And so Niebuhr prayed for the courage to change the things I can.  And what we can change is ourselves.  Can we develop the courage that it takes to say that we are responsible for our lives—that we are responsible for our own happiness, satisfaction, and success (however we choose to define it)?  It is not easy.  While I share these thoughts with you I realize that this challenge is the single biggest challenge in my own life.  It is so much easier to wish things would change or to complain about the way things are.  I frequently catch myself with those thoughts, and have to actively remind myself that if I don’t like it, I need to change it.  I wish you success and courage as you change the things that you want to change.

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