Knowing what can and cannot change

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

~Reinhold Niebuhr

This prayer is most widely known from 12-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, but that was not its origin. This is the beginning of a longer prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian, in the first half of the last century. Although I have often found this idea of knowing what I can and cannot change in external circumstance to be very helpful over the years, I find myself pondering this lately when it comes to ways I can and cannot change myself.

I’d like to think that I can change anything about myself that I want to, but the older I get, the more I am beginning to suspect that this is not as true as I wish it to be. Some of this comes back to the ongoing nature vs. nurture debate. What things about us are simply innate parts of who we are that we are born with? And what things about us are things we have learned and can therefore unlearn?

I don’t mean to imply a fatalistic attitude in this; even things that are innate to us may be open to some influence, so I’m not advocating a refusal to take responsibility over these things. What I am pondering is which things can I realistically expect to be able to change about myself if I think they are not working to my advantage versus those things that I may need to learn to work with rather than hoping to completely change.

For example, I am an introvert. This is an innate part of who I am and how I interact with the world around me. I will always find lots of interpersonal interaction draining; I will always need time alone to recharge. It’s how I’m made. Now, if I find that this characteristic is causing me challenges in some area of life, I may be able to find ways to influence this slightly through techniques for better preserving my energy when interacting with others, ensuring I intentionally schedule times alone to recharge, emphasizing one-on-one and small group interactions over large group interactions, or even ensuring that I get lots of rest and proper nutritional support when a lot of people time is required. But all of those strategies are working with my inborn nature to adapt to demands on me in order to reach my goals. None of these things will make me an extrovert because that simply is not who or what I am. I know better than to waste my time trying to change myself into one. Instead, I have learned to accept this part of who I am with serenity and am increasingly able to value it as a strength even though this flies against the “wisdom” of our prevailing culture.

On the other hand, I’ve recently realized that I am severely co-dependent. This is a learned pattern. Every woman in my family of origin was co-dependent, even though that name for it was never used. I was taught that this was how good Christian women acted. To act any other way was un-Christian and un-ladylike. At my age, this pattern has been going on for so long that it is going to be very, very hard to break. My conditioning to operate this way is strong, and I have a lifetime of living this habit to entrench it deeply in my psyche. But it is still a learned habit, and as such, it is something that I do have the ability to change. It is going to take a lot of work and a lot of courage, and it may take constant vigilance for the rest of my life to ensure I don’t fall back into it when I’m not paying attention, but it can be changed.

The examples I give above are fairly clear-cut. Unfortunately, many characteristics are not so obvious. My biggest struggle right now, as a scientist studying this phenomenon that is me, is to have enough wisdom to know which things fall into which category. It’s not always easy to distinguish which characteristics I need to learn to accept with serenity and which ones I need to have the courage to change, but I’m increasingly convinced that the wisdom to know the difference is the first hurdle I face on this journey I am on.

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  1. Pingback: Chickens, eggs and the question of voice « Journey Through the Chrysalis

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