The Serenity Prayer Re-envisioned as a Kick-Butt Battle Plan for Your Life
When I was a small boy, my mother had a lot of crafty things hanging on the walls: pictures of geese, cross-stitches of farm animals; that sort of thing. She also had an inspirational quotation embroidered onto white canvas, hanging on the kitchen wall, near the pantry.
Little did I know that the tattered and frayed words stitched into that canvas in blue yarn contained a secret. That’s right, a secret. What secret? The secret to happiness and success, that’s what secret. The secret we all wish we had.
The quotation was originally penned in the 1930’s by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It’s called the Serenity Prayer. And despite its obvious Christian origins, you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize its powerful wisdom:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Contained within that single sentence is a grand idea that sweeps across races, religions, walks of life, and world views: the universal human idea that success can be decomposed into 4 characteristics:
1) Discernment: The ability to understand which motivations should drive you to change the world, and which should drive you to increase your own tolerance, flexibility, and acceptance.
2) Peace of Mind: If you’ll allow me a little creative license, I believe the serenity spoken of in the prayer is the inevitable result of balance between your environment and your mind; the thing you feel when you have changed whatever should be changed and accepted whatever cannot (or should not) be changed, although it’s clear the intent of the quotation is the latter.
3) Competence: skill to change the things that should be changed.
4) Courage: determination required to face great adversity while leaving your imprint upon the world.
These 4 characteristics are essential to practically any personal development strategy. By possessing and applying each of these, we can train ourselves to lead happy, productive lives.
Inward vs. Outward Resolution
Every time you feel a pang of dissatisfaction, you have an opportunity to make one of life’s most important decisions: Change the world? Or change your attitude? This decision between inward and outward resolution is the beating heart of Reinhold Niebuhr’s quotation.
So how do we decide? Niebuhr suggests spirituality, a viable option for many, in all its varying forms: prayer, meditation, introspection. Conversely, you can decide how to handle a problem by placing it into one of the following 4 categories:
1. Unchangeable: some things ya just can’t change, baby.
2. Moral Victory: and some things are worth fighting for, even if ya can’t win, right?
3. Inadvisable Change: oh, but sometimes the cost of making the change is greater than the cost of the status quo, even if change is possible.
4. Advisable Change: And finally, there are those problems that present us with opportunities or obligations to shake the lead out of our lives and make a real difference.
What problems are you experiencing right now? Go on, think about it. And now that you’ve got those problems floating at the top of your mind, categorize them. What category of problem are you dealing with? Change or no change? Action or acceptance?
Make your choice.
The Power of Categorizing Your Problems
The other night, I was driving home in the rain, caught in traffic. Some crazy man cut me off, and my anger flared. I took a deep breath and thought, What category of problem is traffic? I allowed myself a few minutes of continued frustration while I considered whether I could do anything to fix the traffic, such as taking an alternate route; alas, the problem was unchangeable.
I took a deep breath, resigned myself to the inevitability of the commute, and felt serenity wash over me like a wave. The act of categorizing a problem offered an oddly effective sense of finality.
The next time you find yourself troubled, categorize your problem: unchangeable? moral victory? inadvisable change? or advisable change?
In the grand scheme of things, traffic is a minor problem, but a surprising number of life’s aggravations are similarly inconsequential. Bigger problems require more time to accept, but it’s no surprise that acceptance is the final stage of grief, and the quicker we surrender, the faster peace arrives.
Competence and Courage
In addition to discernment and peace of mind, the other two characteristics suggested by the Serenity Prayer (with a bit of admitted creative license) are competence and courage, with courage mentioned explicitly. To change the things that should be changed, you need both.
Whether your goal is to start your own business, learn a new trade, find a new relationship, or whatever else, you need specific skills. Often, the very act of acquiring those skills can require courage, as can using them. Once you decide what you want (or need) to do, develop those skills, boost your self-efficacy, and take care of business with the courage of a warrior.
Do you need more education? Go get it. Do you need to face your fears? Go get ’em, Tiger. Courage and competence, competence and courage. Your twin allies on the road to change.
The Serenity Battle Plan: 1, 2, 3
When a problem rears its ugly head, you can tremble in fear, waste time in indecision, or take an immediate series of steps to resolve it:
Step 1. Categorize the problem.
Step 2. If the problem cannot (or should not) be changed, focus on surrender and acceptance or, alternatively, achieving a moral victory.
Step 3. If the problem can and should be changed, do you have the skills to change it? Muster courage, draw up a plan, gather those skills, and charge forth, flags waving.
Life’s short; take it by the horns.
And by taking my own penchant for writing personal development articles by the horns, I’ve managed to turn something as calm as the Serenity Prayer into a battle cry for action; I’ll accept responsibility for that twist and humbly exit stage left, leaving you with old wisdom re-envisioned for the modern world.
The oldies are often the goodies, and everything I ever needed to know about solving life’s problems really was hanging on the cracked plaster wall near the pantry in my mother’s kitchen when I was 9 years old.
August 23, 2007 Thursday at 11:45 pm