The wisdom to know the difference

March 30, 2017 0

The Serenity Prayer is used by members of Alcoholics Anonymous and sometimes claimed by entrepreneurs as the “Entrepreneur’s Prayer”:

“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.”

Epictetus, the Greek stoic philosopher that flourished in the early second century A.D., provided another great representation of this idea:

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”

If there was ever a perfect condensation of stoic philosophy, this would be it. That is, you can alleviate suffering and cultivate happiness by simply mitigating your attitude about your circumstances. Stoic philosophers teach us that things we can’t change should not negatively impact our mental state. The stoics also teach us that we need good discipline and habits if we’re to have any hope of changing the things that actually need fixing. While courage is certainly vital to initiating change, important things would not get accomplished without the discipline and habits to see them through to the end.

The hardest part of this is the third line of the Serenity Prayer – the wisdom to know the difference between the things we can change and the things we can’t. How do you “learn to distinguish between what you can and can’t control,” as Epictetus said?

In my last post, I talked about the importance of asking yourself good questions. A good question should promote both reflection and action. Asking yourself the question, “What are you gonna do about it?” is a great starting point for understanding your latitude for action in a given situation. Sometimes the answer to that question might be “Nothing.” But by asking yourself this simple question, you are bringing yourself back into the present. You are giving your rational mind a chance to figure out the situation, rather than allowing emotions to hijack your actions and mental state.

Either way, you’ll find that the answer to this question is rarely “Nothing.” Because at the very least, the “something” you can do at this very moment is not let the situation affect your well-being. Even if there is nothing you can do to change the situation at this moment, you can still purposefully choose to be calm and patient, rather than anxious and impulsive.

As another great philosopher said:

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.  – Maya Angelou


Also published on Medium.