The Wisdom to Know
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 2014
Some things we cannot change; others we can. We must choose how to respond.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
The serenity prayer soothes the mind, reminding of limitations. We can’t do it all. Children and spouses have freedom—the freedom to choose. We take responsibility, wallowing in guilt over the crimes we haven’t committed. The prayer doesn’t identify the exact location of the line between responsibility and submission but reminds of its presence. We know that we improve our lives through personal-accountability; but vast areas of experience lie beyond personal control. Our futures depend upon wise decisions in the present; our peace depends on accepting the unpredictable and uncontrollable universe.
Taking responsibility for events outside our control is discouraging. There is nothing we can do about it. We just feel guilt and weight to see what happens next. Many parents with children suffering from addiction pummel themselves over the past, evaluating what they should or shouldn’t have done. Although psychology has moved on to better theories, behaviorism lives on in our minds. When something doesn’t work out, we search for the behavioral cause. We still think we can fix people, we can force change in others, we believe, solving the problem by giving, hoping, and manipulating—but the addictions continue. Parents can help but cannot forcefully craft a favorable outcome.
Conversely, others deny responsibility and avoid action, soothing guilt with maladaptive thought patterns, excusing action and dodging efforts, condemning themselves to reliving problems they can effectively change.
We typically will not know at the beginning which problems are unsolvable and which ones, with a little guided action can be remedied. Instead of quickly labeling a situation, we must investigate deeper. The causes may be completely external—or internal. But usually causes are both. Reflective investigations usually uncover actions we can take, not that we were solely responsible for the trouble but because we have viable options in our response to the calamity. When we explore action options, instead of quickly turning to helplessness, we discover our strengths, even in events beyond our control.
Many disappointments are triggered by external circumstances. We drift through the normal ups and downs, experiencing joys and sadness, but with wisdom and patience, we find balance, working through the changes. Life sails smoothly for a while; but then, in a moment, everything changes. Thieves kick in the door, rob and pillage our peace. Unprepared for the rude disruptions to ordinary life, we sink into depressions. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
We can’t be too harsh, demanding solutions where none are readily available. We didn’t create the emergency. We naturally respond to nasty surprises with emotion. We are programmed to survive. Unplanned events pull the focus of the organism into survival mode, evaluating, reacting, and protecting. We feel discomfort; hurt motivates movement. We remove our hand from the flame because it hurts. A shot of pain triggers a flinch, protecting sensitive tissue. Emotional pain works the same way. Emotional stirrings warn of danger. The senses scan the environment for threats to avoid unneeded pain. Emotions are a major contributor to learning. Others trigger pain and we respond and remember.
"Life sails smoothly for a while; but then, in a moment, everything changes. Thieves kick in the door, rob and pillage our peace."
Pain creates emotional markers that signals danger during similar happenings. We want to avoid the unnecessary unpleasantness. Pain is not the enemy; it protects. We can, however, graciously examine pain for insights. When properly processed, pain builds strength, wisdom and compassion. We can blame others, but skirting responsibility averts attention from effective action.
Healing isn’t a product of willpower. Time heals wounds. Forgiveness heals wounds. Experience and understanding heals wounds. Compassionately accepting complexity, not settling for simplified explanations, heals wounds. These are gentle processes achieved through patience not force.
We learn from painful experience, whether a consequence of our choice or not. Instead of bitterness we accept the realities of an unpredictable life, seek support, search for healthy responses, and then move towards intentions. Wisdom is knowing where to take responsibility, where to offer forgiveness, and when we just don’t know which is which. “God Grant me the wisdom to know the difference.”
A flourishing life demands attention—careful mindfulness. When the emotional storms calm, we kindly accept the realities of life, and invite wisdom to expand our skill of living.