The Personalist Project

Some over-familiar words that deserve a closer look:

God grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

It's part of the Serenity Prayer, popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous. Like many cliches, it's well known for a reason. But about that "wisdom to know the difference" part--here's something I hadn't thought of before. 

The things we think we cannot change--they tend to be things about ourselves. And the things we imagine we can? Those are mostly things about other people. It's hard to say which is more frustrating: laboring under the illusion that you could change somebody else if you could just pinpoint the right technique--or staying mired in hopelessness because you imagine you're powerless to change yourself.

In fact, we've got it backwards: we can't change other people (not directly, not deeply). And we can change ourselves--certainly not in every way, or without the "Higher Power" that AA also acknowledges--but still, our ability to change ourselves is a whole lot greater than we tend to give it credit for.

The things I cannot change are the ones that depend on other people's free will (leaving aside, of course, the laws governing matter, logic, metaphysics and such.) The things I do have hope of changing are located in my own subjectivity.

(The more I write, the more I realize that the subject requires more distinctions than I can articulate here--so I mean it as a springboard to further discussion, not a stand-alone claim.)

Maneuvering between hope for change and acceptance that "it is what it is" is a balancing act. On the one hand, it takes some doing even to arrive at the conviction that no amount of brilliant phrasing, powers of persuasion, manipulation, or coercion is going to change other people's character, or wiring, or inner self (though an influential person can change someone's self-perception, confidence level, or manner--via anything from intimidation to inspiration.).

On the other hand,  the futility of trying to change others isn't the whole story. We ourselves are far more "fixable" than we imagine. (Again, this is not something we can accomplish single-handed. As the wise Flannery O'Connor puts it, "God rescues us from ourselves if we want Him to.") 

One thing He can rescue us from is what Jacques Philippe calls "limiting beliefs." We all lug some of these around with us--from a wound in childhood, or some refrain that was drummed into our head so persistently that we never thought to question it. Just psychologically speaking--apart from the possibility of supernatural aid--we place all kinds of unnecessary limits on ourselves--things we're convinced we're not good at or would be overwhelmed by. The longer we let such beliefs sit there, the more plausible they start to seem. 

On the other hand, people do have their limits. We're wired a certain way. No amount of tinkering will turn my tone-deaf son into the next Brahms, and no amount of nagging will transform my sanguine daughter into a phlegmatic. Even raw material plus practice plus experience plus grace doesn't equal "infinitely malleable."

What do you think? Do you have a story to tell? How have you acquired the wisdom to know the difference?

Comments (4)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Jun 19, 2017 1:25pm

I love it when we reach the same themes from different directions, Devra! This is fantastic. 

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jun 19, 2017 4:45pm

There's an adjustment in the prayer for an AA spinoff geared toward recovery from a dysfunctional childhood:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change; the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know that one is me."

I'm over 50, and I feel like I'm only just now beginning to learn how much I've occupied myself trying to fix others and neglecting to fix myself. 

Letting go of that tendency has been incredibly freeing, even though I still have a long way to go.

Devra Torres

#3, Jun 19, 2017 5:32pm

Yes, it seems there's always a reason, or excuse, for trying to change other people. With your children, it's seen as your job. With your spouse, if you're "one," and if spouses are, as is often said, given to each other to help each other get to heaven, it can seem obvious that change is going to have to happen and that you're elected to make it happen. And then friends, and colleagues--whether you're motivated by a sense of duty or just by the frustration of living and working with them the way they are now--pretty soon the whole world becomes your "patient."

Rhett Segall

#4, Jun 20, 2017 8:59am

I think the polarities of facticity and possibility as well as impotency and responsibility are at work in the prayer. It is living within the creative tension of these polarities, a work of grace, that we become authentic.

One area where facticity is denied nowadays is gender. Without judging the hearts of the persons involved, I think it is sad and destructive of society that gender is now considered a question of choice by many and not a given with enormous possibilities for our human vocation.

A good example of responsibility towards change is found in the life of Dietrich Von Hildebrand.  He found it very difficult to overcome his inhibition of getting and meeting an advisor for his doctoral work.  In fact when he was a bit older he acknowledged that there were certain inhibitions he had that he could not overcome without a clear consciousness that it was God's will that he do so.  I find this fascinating and instructive in light of what Dietrich wrote in his chapter on True Freedom in Transformation in Christ, i.e. by consistent ascetical methods, adapted to our particular inhibitions, we shall gradually but decisively become freer to follow God's call uninhibited.

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