My life has changed significantly over the past several years because my perspective and my thoughts have changed. What I have come to realize that life is not as it is; it is how we see it. Reality only exists in our minds. My reality is not necessarily your reality. Once we grasp this concept life becomes much easier to understand. It did for me anyway. One of the most powerful changes I made was learning to accept what is. Many, at first glance, may find this quite disturbing. If you accept what is, then you will no longer be in control. Life will simply push and pull you in every direction and you won’t be able to get what you want. I have found quite the opposite to be true. I have received so much more in my life by accepting rather than by fighting, what is. There is a beautiful piece of writing called the Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr, which sums up this philosophy and has truly served me well in my life.
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.
(You probably recognize this prayer, as it has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step programs.)
You see, accepting what is only means that I have learned to accept what is occurring in my life (beyond my control) and by doing so I have let go of so much frustration and anxiety. Many of us were taught at a young age that we must always strive to be in control. Unfortunately, life doesn’t quite work like that, and thus we have set ourselves up for many disappointments. We have sentenced ourselves to a life of disillusionment, stress, anxiety, anticipation, and frustration — by trying to always be in control. I have found that when I surrender to what is beyond my control, I experience feelings of peace, calmness, tranquility, and harmony. This does not mean that I totally give up and don’t try anymore. Quite the contrary. Accepting what is allows me to feel so much better than struggling to change that which I have no chance of changing. It allows me to save my energy so that I may change the things I can. The more we resist what is beyond our control, the more frustrated and aggravated we get. It is said that the Buddha acquired enlightenment by surrendering to what is. He realized that the source of his suffering was in trying to change what was beyond his power to change. As the story goes, his decision to surrender to what is allowed him to experience instant enlightenment. Take a few moments to think about the things in your life that are beyond your control. These include things like the weather, the economy, the cost of certain goods and services, traffic conditions, the way others act toward you, etc. I have learned that although we cannot control these things, we always have the ability to choose how we respond to anything that comes our way.
Two very powerful things that have helped me in moving to accepting what is in my life are patience and faith. Patience and faith will bring us what we want and need in a calm and peaceful way. Life unfolds as it does and it is our choice to accept life as it is or to choose worry, fear and stress as we try to push it along on our schedule. Patience puts us in a place of harmony and serenity while we wait for opportunities to unfold that lead us to what it is we want. Faith allows us to tap into the magnificent Power that created our entire world including all living things. Faith and patience are a great combination for a more pleasurable life as we move to accept what is.
That brings us to the second line in Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer – “courage to change the things I can”. When you haven’t wasted your energy fighting battles you will never win, you have so much more energy to give to changing the things you can. It definitely takes courage to make changes in our lives: to stand up against all odds in order to make changes that will bring us more happiness and contentment; to stand up to popular opinion and even more so to the opinion of others; to find, deep within us, who we truly are and allow that person to express him or herself to the world; and to be the authentic and genuine person that we were born to be, before all the conditioned beliefs were heaped upon us.
Many of us seek the courage to stand up and be counted when we know what is right for ourselves and for others. In order to go beyond the “courage to change the things we can” we must take appropriate action: to speak our minds and move towards making our lives happier and more enjoyable. The interesting thing is that the more action we take to make our lives better, the more we inspire others to do the same. The more we stand up to be counted and follow our beliefs about what needs to be changed in our world, the more we will move to the tipping point that will truly change our world for the better. Accepting what is does not mean standing by when social injustice is going on all around. In my opinion, the only way we will have the courage to change the things that need to be changed will be by accepting the things we cannot change and putting all of our energy into fighting the battles we have a chance at winning.
It is worth noting that what we want to change in our lives today will not necessarily be what we want to change in the future. The question is not always, “can I change something in my life” but “do I want to change it today?” Part of the discernment process is learning to understand why you want to change something in your life as opposed to making changes for the sake of making changes. It is one thing to have the courage to change the things we can, but it is another to only change the things that will truly improve our lives.
And so we have come to the place of accepting the things we cannot change while having the courage to change the things we can. But what remains is probably the key to finding the serenity that Niebuhr referred to in his prayer – “the wisdom to know the difference.” It is such a simple statement and yet so complex to put into practice. How many of you have trouble distinguishing between those things you cannot change and those that you can? I know that this is a constant struggle for me. I have been caught so many times trying to change the things that are beyond my control. What has assisted me most in my journey is awareness and discernment. The more I stand back and consciously watch and observe what is going on in my life, the more I am able to know whether what is happening is beyond my control.
I truly believe that the wisdom to know the difference only comes with experience. Unfortunately, that experience may involve many instances where we get it wrong and try to change what is beyond our control, often leading us to anxiety, disappointment, and stress. With experience, awareness, and discernment we will continue to develop the wisdom that we require to know when to accept what is and when to take action. After all, life is a journey and not a race, so why not take advantage of the learning experiences that life gives us. It is by being conscious of our experiences that we will learn to know when to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference.
When I got married 38 years ago I truly believed that I would be able to change my wife in certain ways. Don’t get me wrong, my wife is a wonderful partner, but as we began living together I noticed she didn’t always do things the way I thought they should be done. So I embarked on a self-destructive journey to change my wife. (I’m sure anyone in a relationship can relate to this on some level). And, here I am 38 years later having learned that you cannot change another person! I slowly developed the wisdom to know where my wife would consider changing and where she would not. In some cases, it was me that changed, and often we just learned to accept each other through compromise. While many people enter relationships (with a boss, life-partner or friend) hoping to change the other person — what I’ve come to realize is that the ONLY person you can ever change is you. Instead of focusing on the other person’s shortcomings, try instead to focus on your own reaction to these. Change the way you look at the person and yourself and you’ll be far better off.
This simple yet powerful philosophy of accepting what is when it is beyond our control has helped me live a far more peaceful, calm and serene life. I have practiced with a certain success having the courage to change the things in my life that I can and have seen great results for me and others around me. As far as gathering the wisdom to know the difference between what I cannot change and what I can, it is still a work in progress. I continue to learn and grow, as all of us do, and build the wisdom from my experiences in my daily life. My choices of what I think I can change and what I know I cannot continue to evolve as my life goes on. My only hope is that someday soon I will live in total serenity as I have mastered the lesson of accepting what is.