Have you been busy trying to change what you cannot change?
Are you doing your best to control what you simply can’t control?
If so, please know—you’re not alone!
It’s strange but true—a great many people all over the world are continually trying to change something that is not in the realm of things they can change. When it’s drastic enough, we see it on the news—generally as some kind of violence toward somebody else. For most of us, however, this tendency goes relatively unnoticed—except perhaps by those you’re trying to mould into the way you think you need them to be. If you’re someone who believes that others need to be different in order for you to feel better, then you’re likely feeling hurt, frustrated, confused, and resentful much of the time. You probably feel as if your life is often spiralling out of control and you don’t know what to do about it.
The Amazing Serenity Prayer
During the many years I attended 12-Step programs for my own addictive behaviours, I heard the Serenity Prayer recited over and over again, quickly and by rote, at the end of every meeting without exception. Everyone had it memorized and we’d all just sing-song our way through it. But I became curious about what this prayer was really saying—what the message behind it actually was—so I began to look at it in some detail, line by line.
I discovered some very intriguing ideas: If we don’t feel serene or calm, we are not fully practicing the amazing guidance of this short but magnificent prayer. If you are the loved one of someone with an addiction, or perhaps an addict yourself, then serenity is not something you’ll have very much of. The roller coaster ride of addiction—however it’s manifesting and affecting you—is never fun or easy. And not only will you not have much, if any, serenity in your life, it will truly become something you’re wanting very much to attain.
To gain this peaceful serenity and resolve what we can about our situations, we first must be willing to accept what we can’t change. When we look deeply enough at what those things are, we realize that this means absolutely everything outside of ourselves: the weather, the past, how fast time is going, how temptingly delicious chocolate tastes—and most especially other people, who we simply cannot change unless they let us. And, of course, when it happens that way, it’s not really a case of us changing anyone else anyway!
Next we need to look at what we actually can control. After all of my years of wishing I could exert control over the world and pretty much everything in it, I finally had to admit that the only thing any of us can control is—drum roll—ourselves. What we can control and therefore change includes our thoughts, our feelings, our choices, and our reactions. We can solve problems that WE each have, but not the problems someone else has—because those are their responsibility to solve.
Are You Trying to Solve the Unsolvable?
When we try to solve someone else’s problems for them, we are trying to solve the unsolvable—and when we attempt to do this on a consistent basis, we stop respecting ourselves as well as the other person. Our job is to tend to our own lives, and let others do the same. We can support those we love when they are making healthy choices for themselves and we can, if we choose to, take ourselves out of the chaos they are often choosing to create for themselves. Taking ourselves away doesn’t mean we don’t love them or care about them. But it does mean that we care enough about ourselves and our own state of serenity to not get entangled and enmeshed in situations we can’t change anyway. Because the responsibility isn’t ours, there is virtually nothing we can do—short of changing ourselves and how we are responding—to make the situation different.
In order to stop desperately trying to solve the unsolvable, we must be willing to develop a deep understanding of the 4th line of the Serenity Prayer: The wisdom to know the difference. If we don’t know the difference between what we can change and what we can’t, we will keep trying to change what we absolutely cannot change. When we do this, the results are basically the same: feelings of shame, guilt, and exasperation. And what’s worse is that the very thing we’re wanting—serenity—flies right out the window and out of our grasp.
From My Own Experience…
Here is what I’ve been understanding recently: If I can’t control anyone else, but I can control my own choices, then I have the freedom to choose those things differently. I can ask myself, “In my responses in this moment, am I problem-oriented or am I solution-oriented? Am I trying to change someone or something that is out of my control—or am I trying to deal with whatever is happening in the healthiest way I can for everyone concerned?”
Wouldn’t it be good if I could find a way to feel better, regardless of what else is going on, without trying to change something outside of my control?
I recently had an interesting experience with serenity and the unsolvable. In the middle of the night, around 1:30 am, I was awakened by some very loud noises outside—banging, male voices shouting at each other, the beep-beep-beep-beep of a truck in reverse. I immediately went into a “Can you believe this??” story in my head. I went to see what was going on and was met with an exceedingly bright light in my apartment—and I started to wonder if this could be a UFO!
But no, it was nothing quite that outrageous. What I saw were three BC Hydro trucks in the alley, a few men talking quite loudly—and the light that was emerging from the top of one of the trucks. Clearly, there was something wrong somewhere in their Hydro-world that they were trying to fix—with no apparent empathy for the many people in the area who, like me, were trying to sleep.
Then, a mere moment later, all the electricity suddenly went off in the building I live in and in the one across the alley. I couldn’t tell which building the problem was in—and I admit to having some concern about the food in my freezer if the electricity stayed off. Part of me wanted to go downstairs and give these very noisy guys a piece of my mind—however, I quickly realized that not only would this not do any good, but that I would also have to go down nine flights of stairs in complete darkness—and then come back up again the same way!
So I thought about the Serenity Prayer and about whether I was trying to solve the unsolvable. Sometimes events are just out of our control, and this was a great example of that. There was really nothing I could do about what was occurring. It was a true pat-on-the-back moment for me when I made the choice to simply go back to sleep, with earplugs. I was aware that I could have made the choice to stay awake and stay angry. But I knew that if I chose that option, I would have had a difficult next day, functioning on very little sleep and staying focused on something negative that I couldn’t change. I actually felt immensely proud of myself when I chose to control what I could and practice better self-care.
When I awakened in the morning the trucks were gone, the electricity was back on in the building, and the food in my freezer was just fine. That was a wonderful lesson I won’t soon forget, and I know I’ll be doing my best to not get all caught up in situations that are simply out of my control.
One Final Thought—About Monkeys
To quote one of my favourite sayings—“Not my circus, not my monkeys.” If it’s not my circus and it’s not my monkeys, then even if I don’t like what’s happening, I need to allow myself to let go and make healthier, self-respectful choices.
Are you sure you still want to keep trying to solve the unsolvable? Do you want to stay stuck in other people’s problems when you really need to be focusing on your own life? If your answer is a deep resounding “NO!” then you might prefer to cultivate the wisdom to know the difference and instead experience compassion, empathy, self-care—and yes, serenity.