A View From the Watchroom
Barry K. Wyrick, MS, MBA
Chief Operating Officer
For those of you who have any experience in the substance abuse field, the words of the Serenity Prayer should be fairly familiar. For those of you who are not familiar, 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.” (It is amazing what just five minutes of research can find. I wanted to make sure that I quoted the prayer correctly, so I Googled it, and found that I, along with many others, have been incorrectly attributing this prayer to St. Francis of Assisi for my entire professional life—it is always hard for me to say that I am wrong, but it is also always good for me, so here goes—I was wrong). For my next three blog posts, I am going to discuss each of the three sections in this prayer. Today, I would like to talk about serenity.
There is a certain lesson in our agency’s Anger Management curriculum that discusses one of the major principles of William Glasser’s Choice Theory—The only things in this life that I control are what I choose to do, think, and feel. I always introduce this lesson by telling the group that the lesson is titled, “The Million Dollar Lesson.” When the group asks me why it is called that, I tell them because it is worth a million dollars. When they ask me how that could be, I ask them what percentage of their unhappiness in life is caused by the fact that other people don’t do what they want them to do. Usually the group agrees that the percentage is somewhere in the 75 to 90 percent range. I then ask them how much they would be willing to pay if I could make all of that unhappiness go away by the end of the next hour. The group normally agrees that it would be priceless, but we settle on the figure of a million dollars—thus, the name of the lesson (I just wish they would pay me that amount at the end of the lesson!).
Whether it is the traffic on the road, the rude customer that you must serve, or a loved one that disappoints you—the majority of our unhappiness, frustration, and anger is caused by the fact that other people don’t do what we want them to do. For those of you with a broader view, we can say the same thing in saying that the world just doesn’t work the way that we want it to. We want our lives to be predictable, and instead we find that the universe seems random (an example from today’s newspaper is that several hundred people are heading home on a commuter train, and four of them end up dead, with over a dozen seriously injured). We want others to treat us with dignity and respect, and instead we find that others don’t really care about our needs or our feelings (an example is the news reports of fights in the lines at the stores on Black Friday). We want our loved ones to consistently show us how deeply they care about us and our wants and needs, and instead we find that they do or say things that deeply hurt us (you can create your own example by thinking of your most recent argument with a loved one).
By this time, you may be asking, “Barry, what has all of this to do with serenity?” The first part of the prayer is “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” One of the most difficult lessons that we must learn as adults is that we cannot control what other people do, think, or feel. We cannot control the way that the world exists, and we cannot control the random, sometimes inhumane, events in the world. That is not to say that we will not be disappointed, hurt, or even angry when other people don’t do what we want them to do. Even Glasser gives us the validity of these reactions when he defined anger as the emotion that we feel when we do not get what we want. What is critical to realize and accept is that since we do not control these others, we will find it very difficult to change their behaviors (I won’t go as far as to say that we cannot change others because I believe that we can help influence and change others’ actions, thoughts, and feelings within the intimacy of a personal or counseling relationship). What we do control in these situations is ourselves—our actions, thoughts, and feelings. We can choose what we do. We can choose what we think. We can even choose how we feel.
How this all comes back to serenity is that in order to take back control of what we do in situations that frustrate us, we must give up our desire to control and to change others. When we can fully accept that other people will do what they will do, and that we are powerless to change that, then we can develop the serenity to remain calm and choose how we wish to respond. Serenity is best defined as a state of tranquility that is free of stress and emotion. Just imagine your life being tranquil and free of stress when you face each of your day’s frustrations and disappointments (you’re starting to see how this may be worth a million dollars!). When we are able to give up our desire to control the world we live in, we can accept the way that it is, and focus instead on what we do control, which is ourselves.
Let me make this much more concrete, because at this point I have to admit that I am starting to sound a little pious, and maybe even absurd. I will use the examples that I referenced earlier. First, you are trying to get wherever it is that you are going, and the traffic is heavier and slower than usual. Is there anything that you can do to change that situation? No? And yet we’ll obsessively change lanes, thinking that one of them is faster than the other. We will growl and grumble, and yell at who knows what. We will find our pulse racing and our blood pressure rising, and to what end? We get to sit in traffic just like everyone else, only we are angry about it. If instead we focus on ourselves, we can choose what we do (maybe find a good CD to put in that we really enjoy), what we think (maybe we take this extra time in our day to think about what we are thankful for), and how we feel (maybe I choose to feel amused at all of the other people who are frustrated rather than joining them).
A second example is the rude customer that you must serve. I know that all of us would prefer to be treated nicely, especially by a customer that we are serving. But when that customer acts in rude ways, is there really anything that you can do to change the way that the other behaves? Not really, because we are an insignificant person in their life, and if we comment on their behavior, they are likely to become even more rude or hostile. What we do control is ourselves. We can choose what we do (maybe we decide to treat them with special kindness because they must be having a bad day), we can choose what we think (maybe I decide to remind myself that this person obviously does not know what a wonderful person that I am), and how we feel (maybe we choose to feel pleased that our life is obviously in such a better place than that other person’s is).
Finally, and I think this one is most difficult, is the loved one who disappoints us. We want the people who are most important in our lives to show us how they care deeply about us. But when that person does something that disappoints me, is there anything that I can do to change that act? Because we are in a personal relationship with that person, the answer here is maybe. I know that we do lots of things that won’t change the other’s actions (like yelling, screaming, nagging, and criticizing), because all of those behaviors are designed in some way to attempt to control the other. If I focus on what I do control, and make solid choices about what I do, think, and feel, my response may, in fact, lead to a change in the other person’s behavior. I can choose what I do (maybe I calmly and respectfully tell my loved one how what they did affected me), I can choose what I think (maybe I try to think of a fair and loving reason for my loved one’s actions, rather than attributing it to the fact that they don’t care about me), and I can choose how I feel (maybe I can stay with feeling disappointed rather than escalating the feeling to abandoned and angry).
If we can truly find serenity with the actions of others and the events of the world—if we can accept these things with a tranquil and stress free reaction, we are freed to make the choices in those situations that have the possibility of working out best for ourselves. It is in the acceptance of others that we can find power in ourselves. It is in the appreciation of the unpredictability of the universe that we can find our humble place. God, grant me the serenity to accept the world the way it is, rather than the hubris to try to take your place and make it the way that I think it should be.