How to ‘Know the Difference’ in the Serenity Prayer
This prayer, which has been around for almost seven decades, is said at virtually every 12 step meeting and used by countless millions as a foundation for living life…myself included.
But the hard part is the last stanza, “the wisdom to know the difference”. How do you know the difference between what you can and cannot change?
There are probably many ways to determine this difference, but I’ve found one that works for me. It’s relatively simple and only involves asking a couple of yes/no questions. But there’s one major caveat: as soon as I answer a ‘no’ then I have my answer.
First question: “Are the consequences of this situation mine?”
This question isn’t as simple as it looks. The most serious consequences of this problem/decision must be mine. So if my problem is that husband is drinking alcoholically I could argue that outcome of his drinking is my consequence – after all, I might lose my home. And it is. But it’s not the most serious outcome because alcoholics die of drinking. So that consequence goes to him. And the answer is no, it’s not my problem to solve. Or in terms of the Serenity Prayer, this is something I can’t change.
Another example: My adult son/daughter/friend won’t take their meds for mental illness/cancer/a cold… Again, the major consequences of this situation belong to the person who is doing or won’t do the actions we desire. So again, the answer is No: This isn’t my problem and I have to step away.
But if the answer is ‘yes’, and themajor consequences are mine, then ask yourself:
Second question: What is the action I can take, other than talking to the other party once, to solve this problem.
For a problem to be mine, I have to be able to take an action to solve it. If there is no such action, then it’s not my problem. So I stop trying to find the right words to say at the right time in the right way to impress someone else to do what I want. Regardless of how right I am.
We all know that many people make rotten decisions – life shortening, dangerous choices that have no merit in anyone else’s mind. But those poor decisions aren’t my responsibility – nor are they mine to fix.
So if there’s an action we can take to solve the problem, we take it. If there’s not an action to take, we need to learn to let go of the problem/situation and get on with our lives, even as we pray for another outcome.
Much easier said than done, but possible. I know because I’ve done it with some of the most earth shattering situations I could imagine. But more on that another time.
How about you? How do you apply the teachings of this old prayer? How have you learned to use it in your daily life?