All of us have heard and read many times about the fact that we can control very, very little in life. Entire volumes could be filled with such wisdom. And yet, so few humans have found a way to really let go of the drive to be master puppeteer to the little corner of the world surrounding each of us. We all seem to believe that it is not only possible, but necessary, to ensure our utmost security by being as much in control of our lives and the things that “happen to us” as we can. We waste so much needless energy, and carry around so much harmful stress, all in an effort to be prepared for anything, to prevent anyone from disliking or disrespecting us, and to keep our paths as free of pebbles and puddles as possible. This striving after control inevitably leads to frustrated anger, and that leads to reactions in word and deed that are almost always (by decent-hearted people) regretted, or to a “stuffing” of that anger, which only eventually eats us up from the inside out. All because we have to keep life on a leash.
And deep inside most of us there is a quiet voice telling us so … but still, on we go, hoping against hope that the next day will FINALLY go smoothly, that no one will add anything more to our 4-page ‘to do’ list, that people will somehow know exactly what we want without being told (and will actually give us those things!), that love and peace will be ours without interruption, that all our dreams will come true. And we somehow believe WHEN, not if, these things do not come to pass, it’s because our efforts to control everything and everyone failed, and we just need to somehow get better at it. Alternatively, when we’ve tried and failed so many times that we simply feel beaten down, we give up, and begin expecting life to dump on us continually and forever. Somewhere along the line, we absorbed and assimilated the belief that life should be relatively easy; that things should go our way. If it isn’t, or if they don’t, then it’s either our fault, or it’s the other guy’s fault, or it’s God’s fault. Such a setup for anxiety, depression, anger, and constant frustration! For many this leads to seeking all kinds of escapes from their daily stress and distress, and in some cases those escapes become addictions, at times from which they never recover.
M. Scott Peck began his pivotal book, The Road Less Traveled, with the line: “Life is difficult.” He goes on to explain how, when once we truly and consistently accept this great truth about life, it actually becomes easier to live. I think in his “Serenity Prayer” Reinhold Niebuhr saw the same truth (the ‘hardness’ of life), and lays out a set of attitudes, or mindsets, which can help to steer us through life’s difficulties, and for which he is then requesting of God. In these qualities or attitudes – serenity, courage, wisdom – lies the secret to a balanced, or mentally healthy, way of living.
The core truth here is, again, that life is very hard. I have very little control over what happens in my life. But when things do happen, I can respond: I can first distinguish which things can and should be changed, and which things cannot or should not be changed. Then, for the first category I can attempt to change those things, conditions, circumstances. For the second, I can accept them. The first response, evaluation and discernment, requires wisdom. The second, an effort to change something, requires courage. The third, acceptance, requires serenity.
Now this is where it begins to get more interesting. Again, what is the mentally healthy pray-er doing here? As I approach life in a healthy stance, what features stand out? First, thinking back to the last post, my first acknowledgement is that I need God. Life is far too complicated, far too fickle, far too uncontrollable for me to handle on my own. More importantly, my mind is far too complex, far too embued with so many false beliefs, so many unhealthy habits, so many tendencies to react, rather than to respond, to all the slings and arrows that life throws in my direction, for me to ever be able to do this on my own. So, with humility I ask for the grace necessary to allow the mind-states of wisdom, serenity, and courage to be born in me with each new encounter that life and I will have today. I ask trustingly, with the openness and the willingness to change and be changed. I ask, knowing that I don’t deserve this grace, or power, but expecting that a loving, compassionate, God or higher power will cheerfully and freely bestow it upon me. As this grace comes and begins to grow within me, within my mind, the mind-states and attitudes we need to be healthy livers of life also grow. As they grow, our ability to change our normal actions and reactions, our normal choices, grows as well.
The actions and choices we listed above, distinguishing, accepting, changing, are a job for my mind, my “will”, to choose and to do. That is my part. The part that comes from without, via grace, are the wisdom, serenity, and courage. I do not yet possess these qualities in sufficient amount in order to become and to stay healthy, day by day, moment by moment. Therefore I must ask for them and be open enough to allow them to come in. When once I do possess them, the discernment, the accepting, the acting to change will come much more easily.
Recall that we talked about how vital it is, even though we are trustingly asking some higher source of power to give us grace, wisdom, courage, and serenity, for us to think often about these things, these states of mind. Why? Well, as one example, sports psychologists have seen their clients achieve great improvement in their athletic performance by helping those men and women visualize themselves performing at higher levels. They use their mind’s eye to ‘see’ themselves accomplishing higher jumps, faster runs, more graceful leaps, and smoother, more accurate shots. By doing so, with eyes closed in the quiet of an office or within their home, and by repeatedly practicing this mental imagining, their confidence and comfort levels grow, and they become more likely to actually do the things they have visualized. In the same way, we also can form “grooves” in the wilderness of our minds by meditating on the mental qualities grace will give us; by picturing ourselves as wise, as serene, as courageous. As grooves form, it makes it not only easier but also more likely that the wheels of our mind will follow those grooves, in the hectic give and take of an average day. So, we can see ourselves stepping back to consider whether the fact that someone just pulled out in front of us, forcing us to hit our brakes to avoid a collision, is really worth doing something more, as in some kind of angry words or gesture or threat. We can see ourselves perhaps deciding that this is a situation best accepted, as we ease up on the brakes, knowing that it’s better to be safe and at peace, perhaps even arriving late to our destination – how terrible!! (wink, wink) – than to allow some anonymous driver to steal our mental health. We see ourselves actually having the internal peace needed to accept it when we lose a beloved pet, or when the boss puts a last-minute project “request” in our box on Friday afternoon, or when we feel very lonely late at night. We see ourselves having and using the courage to speak up for ourselves or for others to whom an injustice has been done, or to set clear limits and boundaries to protect ourselves, even when there’s a good chance it will hurt another’s feelings, or that the other person won’t like us very much anymore.
There is thus a place for these kinds of meditations and visualizations. It can be very helpful, and in fact necessary in many cases. As noted last time, it’s a way for our mind to lean, or incline itself, toward a new way of responding to life. It’s a way to “loosen our grip” on life, and in so doing allows our mind to live a more free and full existence. We acknowledge that life is very difficult, that it is a long series of problems to be addressed, obstacles to be navigated, and that a healthy mindset and attitude are far more important, and far more possible to possess, than control.
Next time we will look at the rest of the serenity prayer, with its simple but wonderful recipe for living a joyful, peaceful, and free life, come what may!