Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Knowing the difference

May I have
The Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.

This little prayer has been a key element in bringing about some changes in attitudes and actions. I have a tendency to want to take on other people's stuff. Stuff such as their problems, their activities, their needs, and their words. All of these as perceived by me, of course. The prayer reminds me that I can only really take on my stuff, and that I need to work to know the difference between my stuff and every one else's stuff. My stuff is things that legitimately belong to me, and are the only things that I can have any hope of changing directly. Your stuff and their stuff is the rest of everything. I can never change any of that by direct action.

This may be easiest to explain with some examples.

I'm in a theater, and someone is coughing or rattling their program. It's mildly annoying, but I can ignore it and pay attention to the performance. But, instead, I could very easily start worrying that the noise is spoiling the experience of others around me. (Yes, really.) Can I do anything about others' experiences? Absolutely not! Can I do something about my thought pattern? Absolutely yes! Now that I know the difference, I can change my attitude, stop worrying, and go back to enjoying the performance.

I am working with others on a project. I definitely have opinions about what needs to be done, and how it should be done, whether it's my part of the project or not. I might think that the way another person proposes to do their part is not the best way, and that I know a better way. But I have to remember that if the result of their work meets the requirements, then it oughtn't matter (to me) how they do it. If I try to jump in and tell them their way is wrong, I'll likely engender resentment rather than gratitude. If I know where the boundary is between my stuff and their stuff, and if I respect that boundary, then we'll work together more harmoniously.

When I was in college, a friend was date-raped. (We didn't call it that, then, but that's what happened.) I immediately started plotting how I could help her if she had gotten pregnant. To this day, I don't know whether she would have wanted or welcomed any such help. But my sense of her stuff versus my stuff was so weak, that I took it on, anyway. Luckily for our friendship, I never said anything about my "plans." It probably would have ended that friendship pretty quickly.

A friend annotates the prayer thusly:
May I have
The serenity to accept the things I can't change
(Everyone else)
The courage to change the things I can (ME!)
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I can hardly think of better words to live by.

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