The Wisdom To Know The Difference

Written on August 16, 2023

I’m not religious but The Serenity Prayer has to be most profound invocation I know. It’s so concise that it can’t even be summarised without effectively restating it.

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

The Serenity Prayer splits things into two categories: those you can change and those you can’t, and encourages you to work out what’s what and act accordingly. I’ve found it fruitful to compare this way of navigating life with other frameworks.

Mindfulness

Take Mindfulness for example. I’ve been listening to a Mindfulness podcast recently (Insight Hour with Joseph Goldstein) and I’m very much on board with the basic premises that everything is always changing, the self (along with many other things) is an illusion, attachment leads to suffering, etc. But I can’t help but feel like it overly focuses on the acceptance side of things and spends little time exploring things you can change in your life and how to know the difference. If I break my arm, should I go to a hospital or just accept my fate, given that my attachment to my un-broken arm was always destined to eventually lead to unnecessary suffering? If somebody has done something that annoys me should I accept it or express my frustration? Listening to Mindfulness content often feels like a motte and bailey where the Mindfulness preacher spends all their time talking about how you should accept everything but then when pressed on any specific example they say ‘well of course, it would be ridiculous not to go to the hospital if you broke your arm!’ or ‘yes, if you’re frustrated at somebody, communicate that with them!’. But then they go straight back to preaching the virtues of layers upon layers of acceptance and dissociation from everyday attachments.

When you first learn that time is an illusion and there is only the present moment (which turns out to also be an illusion) it’s liberating: I’ve got a doctor’s appointment coming up which I’m nervous about but that’s in the future which is an illusion and so I can get cozy in the current moment. But then if I have work due tomorrow, that’s also an illusion so I don’t need to get the work done? This sounds like a contrived example but I had this exact experience where I had invoked the illusion of the future to calm myself down when I was feeling anxious, and then found myself using the same mental tactic as an excuse to procrastinate.

What does The Serenity Prayer have to say about this? Well you can’t change the outcome of a doctor’s appointment, so there’s no point worrying about it. But you can change the outcome of whether you get your work done by the deadline, so you probably should!

It feels wrong to only invoke the illusory-ness of time when it’s convenient to me. But if I’m not supposed to invoke it only when it’s convenient then when should I invoke it? Once a day in an hour of meditation? Seems strange to pigeon-hole it into only meditation sessions, when the point of those sessions is to practice skills that you’re supposed to carry around in everyday life. And if you do try to carry the concept around in everyday life, is it supposed to just sit at the back of your head or are you supposed to really internalise it so that it’s at the forefront of your mind, because if so, how do you function as a human being in a world where time is so central? It’s not even clear to me how it’s an illusion: if the idea is that time is an illusion and attachments are illusions and everything except empty subjective experience is an illusion, then the word ‘illusion’ isn’t very useful. Maybe the idea is to construct a spectrum of realness which goes from fictional characters to historical events to the feelings of the present moment to pure consciousness. Fine, but still, what’s the point! In the end there’s just the things I can change and the things I can’t, and the illusion of time lets me think about how I can change the future in some ways that improve my life.

Manifestation

I’m trash-talking Mindfulness a lot here, so it’s worth considering what happens when you go too far in the other direction, thinking that everything is within your control. That’s what Manifestation is all about. Unlike Mindfulness, which I begrudgingly admit has some good ideas and will probably improve my life if I stick with it, I find Manifestation to be a morally bankrupt concept. The idea that if I get cancer I must have somehow manifested it? Or that if I fail at something that required a good dose of luck to succeed at, I simply didn’t want it enough? Sounds like a recipe for pointless guilt and low self esteem.

Interestingly, Mindfulness and Manifestation are not simply diametrically opposed in acceptance vs change, they’re also opposites in how they treat the ego: Mindfulness is about taming and shrinking the ego, and Manifestation is about honouring it and nurturing it. Yes, Manifestation pays lip service to the idea of reverently deferring to the almighty Universe to action your desires, but thinking the universe is on standby waiting for your request to earn a higher salary or get more praise from your boss is a little self-centered. Where Mindfulness treats all desires as suspect, Manifestation treats them as sacred. Maybe the ‘ego’ itself is just a mechanism for calibrating between change and acceptance. That is, the bigger the ego, the larger more things you categorise as ‘things you can change’ and the fewer things you categorise as beyond your control. Some people’s ego is too big and they suffer for overstating their own powers and abilities, and some people’s ego is too small and they suffer from not asserting their will. Maybe the small ego folks need more Manifestation and big ego folks need more Mindfulness.

I’m being very hand-wavey here: obviously ‘ego’ encapsulates more than your perceived power/abilities, but the parallels are interesting nonetheless. I also suspect both Manifestation and Mindfulness proponents would say I’m failing to properly understand their philosophies, and that’s probably true, but I still feel like there’s room for a framework that better addresses the facets of The Serenity Prayer. Perhaps the reason there is no straightforward framework for discerning what you can and can’t change is that the world is a complicated place and there are countless situations that all require different responses. In fact you could define a piece of wisdom as a response to the question ‘what should I do?’, and boiling down all human wisdom into a simple framework is an impossible task.

At any rate, I’ll continue learning about Mindfulness to see how it can improve my life, but I suspect I’ll continue to feel like it’s a little incoherent, and I’ll continue yearning for some other simple framework which better conforms to The Serenity Prayer. But I’ll likely be disappointed, and I hope God grants me the serenity to accept it.

ChatGPT Chimes In

ChatGPT argues that I’ve oversimplified the teachings of Mindfulness:

Mindfulness emphasizes the ability to respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively. It’s not about accepting everything without action but discerning the best course of action. If a coworker’s behavior annoys you, a mindful approach might involve recognizing your annoyance, understanding its roots, and choosing an appropriate way to address it rather than reacting out of irritation.

Alright ChatGPT that may be so, but this always strikes me as a footnote on the broader thesis of Mindfulness and what is actually the correct response to a given situation is left as an exercise for the reader. But the correct response is exactly what I want your bloody framework to tell me! Granted, Mindfulness has enough on its plate trying to teach me how to control my impulses and remain clear-headed, but I nonetheless remain disappointed.