Deciding When to Demand Change

The serenity prayer is the best all-around psychological advice ever.

Posted Sep 22, 2016

People recognize that gratitude and motivation are good but not that they're in conflict with each other: Concentrate on what’s right and you’ll appreciate what you’ve got; Concentrate on what’s wrong and you’ll seek improvement. Yes, you can do both at once but only sort of. If a particular thing annoys you, you’ve got to make a choice to either ignore it saying, “it could be worse” or meditating on it, saying, “this has got to stop.” Doing both at once leaves you conflicted, paralyzed or ineffectual saying, “It’s OK, wait, no it’s not, wait, yes it is, wait, no it’s not...”

That's what the serenity prayer is about: The quest for the wisdom to know the difference between situations that call for serene acceptance of what's working vs. courageous effort to improve what isn't.

Image created by author based on open rights illustration by John Tenniel for Alice in Wonderland
Source: Image created by author based on open rights illustration by John Tenniel for Alice in Wonderland

 We quest for the wisdom because there are two ways to be wrong: Being serene when you should be courageous vs. being courageous when you should be serene. We can't afford to miss opportunities to improve things, nor can we afford to try to improve what can't be improved.

The courage to improve things that can’t be improved not only risks wasted effort, but losing what you've got. Many a gambler goes for broke and ends up broke or broken. Think Icarus.

We seek the wisdom to know the difference because there's no surefire formula for predicting whether we’re better off appreciating what we've got or seeking more.

That’s a dilemma as old as life itself. Evolution is sometimes described as the tension between exploiting found solutions vs. exploring for better solutions. Biological adaptations express an organism’s some-nipotence, their power to change some things, and their need to accept other things. A fur coat accepts cold weather as unchangeable; claws and teeth represent the courage to change prey into food.

The serenity prayer would be more honest and realistic if it didn't present the dilemma as serenity vs. courage. Those terms give the impression that there's no tension, since they both sound like pure virtues, things to be all the time.

Something like "Grant me the discouragement to accept... and the encouragement to try to improve..." would expose the tension – the whole point of wishing for the wisdom to know which is called for when.

People often ignore the tension, extolling serenity or courage as the obvious way to always be.

Serenity: "You can't change reality, all you can change is your attitude about it. If you have the courage to try to change things, you're just being attached, negative, pushy and clingy."

Courage: "Never lower your standards. Never give up. You can do anything if you put your mind to it. If you settle for what is, you're just a spineless wimp. "

Half-truths like these, presented as whole truths, are worse than lies. They stunt growth toward the wisdom to know the difference. They imply that you don't need to know the difference, because you should always do one or the other.

This election season the choices are between long-term commitments to either radical change or acceptance. Counting our blessings we could decide not to rock the boat. Counting our failings we could decide that it’s time to rock it very, very hard.

We risk missing a golden opportunity for radical improvement, and we risk going for broke and ending up broken.  Campaigners talk as if the choice is obvious.

I talk that way too. I think going for broke on this big a commitment will leave us perhaps irreparably broken. That’s my bet, given the wisdom I’ve accumulated so far, and the reckless, arrogant liar leading the call for radical change.

But none of us should forget that it’s a bet we’re making. This time, a bet that will be really, really huge.